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Sunday Hockey Notes

As Ovechkin case shows, ice time is of the essence

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / November 6, 2011

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No doubt we’d all agree that Alex Ovechkin is a better hockey player than Bruce Boudreau is a coach. All of which added to the drama, subplots, and tantalizing discomfort factor in Washington Tuesday night when the Great 8, left on the bench by Boudreau at crunch time against the Ducks, was caught on camera muttering what appeared to be an obscenity meant for his coach.

Granted, such behavior in a normal workplace today likely would have led to A.O.’s immediate termination. But was it ever fun TV, and it no doubt will pair Boudreau and Ovechkin in YouTube perpetuity, which ultimately might detract from the key point.

To wit: Boudreau’s decision not to roll Ovechkin over the boards with 62 seconds remaining in regulation, and the Capitals down a goal, was precisely the kind of coaching he too often avoided in his four previous seasons in Washington.

It is his job, and solely his job, to determine who is best to use in what situation and at what point in the game. A gobsmacked Ovechkin, now in his seventh NHL season with the Capitals, thought that, as the franchise centerpiece, he would be one of the six skaters Boudreau ordered to the ice. Wrong.

“I thought other guys were better than him,’’ said Boudreau when it was over and the Capitals had tied the game without Ovechkin on the ice and won on a Nicklas Backstrom overtime goal that Ovechkin helped set up. “You go with your gut feeling.’’

Ice time, especially that kind of situational ice time, remains a coach’s most powerful tool. For whatever reasons, most of today’s coaches are reluctant to use such a heavy hand, especially with their high-profile players.

We see that here in Boston, especially with a good portion of Claude Julien’s Cup-defending lineup disinclined the first month of the season to provide the requisite energy and emotion it takes to win on a nightly basis. Rather than call anyone out, bench someone during a game, or sit them out on a given night, Julien instead tinkers with his line combinations and defensive pairings. That’s his standard operating procedure. It works for him. He won a Cup with it, and he’s probably not going to change it.

I will wager this, though, about Julien: If TV caught one of his players dropping an F-bomb with his initials on it, Julien wouldn’t have him in uniform the next game. Something like that does not fall under coaching method or style. That’s just common sense and decency, and a coach can’t tolerate such insolence and hope to preserve his integrity, dignity, authority.

In retrospect, how weak and clueless does Terry Francona look now, after not responding to John Lackey’s juvenile histrionics (eyes rolling, head shaking) when the Red Sox skipper hooked him from games this summer? I only wish some nitwit had done that to Earl Weaver or Billy Martin.

Boudreau made the right call Tuesday, sent a message to Ovechkin and his entire bench, and ultimately won the game. That’s coaching. He should have added to that by not dressing Ovechkin for the next game, Friday in Raleigh, N.C. However, the Russian superstar was back at work and had two assists against the Hurricanes, Boudreau banking that he will go on a tear after Tuesday’s humbling.

The late Tom Johnson, the former Montreal defenseman who coached the Bruins to their Cup in ’72, often talked about how legendary coach Toe Blake handled Canadiens superstar Maurice Richard during the Habs’ dynasty.

“He treated the Rocket the same as everybody else,’’ Johnson once said. “In fact, he was tougher on him than the rest. Because, see, Toe knew if he gave it to Rocket really good, then every guy on the bench figured, ‘Hell, if he’s that tough on him, what’s he going to do with me?!’ ’’

In the Versus studio Tuesday night, ex-coach Mike Keenan worked the hockey desk alongside Jeremy Roenick. Keenan, never shy about confronting his players - including the baby-faced Roenick in Chicago - not surprisingly tossed his full support behind Boudreau.

“When is a teacher a great teacher?’’ mused Keenan, repeating a line he often used as the Bruins coach, typically in reference to the very young Joe Thornton under his watch. “When the student is ready to learn.’’

Roenick noted that some of Keenan’s methods in Chicago often moved him to obscenities, a comment that had a smiling Keenan recalling that Hawks veterans such as Steve Larmer and Michel Goulet tempered those moments by telling JR, “Kid, settle down.’’

All in all, it took Boudreau until his 317th game as Capitals coach truly to take control of his bench and perhaps get his star student prepared to learn and reach his potential. It made for dramatic TV.

For all his time there, with perhaps the game’s most dynamic player under his employ, the 56-year-old Boudreau has guided the Capitals to only two playoff series victories. He has never made it to the conference finals.

It’s no guarantee that the Capitals will make it any further next spring, but if they fall short, it won’t be because Boudreau let a grand opportunity in November slip through his hands.

BITING REMARK BY SHARK

Tortorella, Thornton spar

Joe Thornton often didn’t say enough, or perhaps grasp enough, during his days in Boston, first as a No. 1 draft pick and later as team captain. You might remember that as captain in 2004, he ducked out of addressing the media the day before a playoff Game 7 against the Habs, escaping down the Garden hallway despite being asked by the team’s PR department to fulfill his duties and talk to a group of some two dozen reporters and camera toters.

All of which added to what played out following the 5-2 loss Thornton’s Sharks suffered at Madison Square Garden Monday in the last stop of a six-game trip. Now captain in San Jose, a disappointed Thornton remarked after the loss that the Rangers were “probably the softest team we played on the trip.’’

Concord’s own John Tortorella, the Rangers coach, offered only a sarcastic, “Wonderful,’’ when apprised of Thornton’s words that night. But the ever-thorny Torts was back dishing the next day, noting, among other things, that, “Joe hasn’t won a [expletive] thing in this league.’’

Technically, that’s not true. Thornton was named MVP (Hart Trophy winner) in June 2006, the same season the Bruins flipped him to the Sharks for Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm, and Wayne Primeau. It’s a fair bet, even if he doesn’t win a Cup, that he will be elected to the Hall of Fame.

Sounds unlikely that he’ll win the endorsement of Tortorella, who also labeled Thornton’s remarks “uncalled for’’ and “classless.’’

“He could go down as a player, being one of the better players in our league, never to win anything,’’ said Tortorella. “So what he should do is just shut up.’’

Thornton acknowledged Tuesday that “soft’’ wasn’t the right word. But it is the one that will linger much longer than a New York minute.

THERE IF NEEDED

Veteran help is available

On Wednesday, with their record a lackluster 4-7-0, the Bruins signed veteran forward Chris Clark to a tryout deal in Providence (AHL). No telling if the 35-year-old Clark ever makes it to Causeway Street, but the move speaks to the lack of job competition we’ve seen on the Boston roster this season. Clark’s presence just down I-95 could provide a catalyst for some guys in Boston to get their act in gear.

Meanwhile, a number of other older UFAs remain unsigned, all of whom could be added for very short money. Four to consider:

Bryan McCabe (D) - Like Tomas Kaberle, he was once a power-play force in Toronto, which is why the Rangers acquired him from Florida at the February trade deadline. He didn’t deliver much (2-4-6) in 19 games with the Blueshirts, but he has legit NHL credentials. He might be all done at 36, but right now the Boston power play looks all done with players who are all younger. Everyone thought Sheldon Souray was all done last year, ditched to the minors by Edmonton, but he has rebounded as a key member of the Dallas back line.

Mike Grier (F) - The broad-shouldered former Boston University star, back living in Needham, was never a point machine, but he did build a long career (1,060 games) around intelligence and character. Would buy in totally to Claude Julien’s game based on accountability and support. Presence. Something a struggling team can appreciate.

John Madden (C/F) - A Bruins killer as a Devil, he is 38 now and has hopped around the last two years, moving to St. Paul after winning a Cup with the Blackhawks. Again, not a guy who is going to pile up points or bump anyone out of the top six, but strong on faceoffs and feisty. Played under Julien during the coach’s abbreviated stay at Exit 16W in 2006-07.

Paul Mara (D) - The one-time first-round pick from Belmont Hill was here when Peter Chiarelli arrived in 2006 and was flipped to the Rangers late in the season for Aaron Ward. Just turned 32 in September and spent most of last year in Anaheim before being traded to the Habs. Has scored only twice on the man-advantage over the last five years, but again, could provide some much-needed depth for a team desperate to fix the man-advantage.

ETC.

Alumni group at the Garden

No shortage of college spirit on that Ottawa roster. When they played on Causeway Street Tuesday night, the Senators had no fewer than six former NCAA Division 1 performers on their travel list: Bobby Butler (UNH, four years in school), Erik Condra (Notre Dame, four years), Stephane Da Costa (Merrimack, two years), Colin Greening (Cornell, four years), Brian Lee (North Dakota, two years), and Jesse Winchester (Colgate, four years). Butler, Da Costa, and Winchester all hitched on as free agents, while Lee was a prime draft pick (No. 9 overall in 2005) and Condra (No. 211 in 2006) and Greening (No. 204 in 2005) were essentially throwaway selections. The Bruins the same night had only two college guys - Rich Peverley (St. Lawrence, four years) and Tim Thomas (Vermont, four years) - in the lineup.

Familiar faces

The Islanders are on Causeway Street tomorrow, a rare Monday night game in the Hub, with four ex-Bruins now in their employ: Brian Rolston, Steve Staios, Marty Reasoner, and Milan Jurcina (The Scoring Machina). Meanwhile, Winthrop’s own Rick DiPietro, the former BU goalie chosen No. 1 in the 2000 draft, just got back in the Islanders lineup last night, after taking a Rolston slapper off the head during practice a week into the season and being concussed. DiPietro is in Year 6 of the 15-year deal (annual cap hit: $4.5 million) that he signed in the summer of 2006. He played in a total of 125 games the first two seasons of that landmark deal, but only 42 in the three-plus years since. But, hey, nine more years at a favorable cap number, right?

Oil-based talent

The Oilers will be here Thursday night, the only glimpse we’ll get this season of bright young stars Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, and Jordan Eberle. The biggest Oil strike of the year thus far, though, has been the revivified play of top tender Nikolai Khabibulin, the 38-year-old Bulin Wall, who entered last night’s game with outrageous stats: 0.98 goals-against average and .963 save percentage.

Milestones ahead

Now that Joe Thornton and Hal Gill have logged their 1,000th career games, next to cross the grand threshold will be New Jersey’s Dainius Zubrus and Blue Jacket Vinny Prospal, both of whom should hit 1,000 by the end of the month. Boston captain Zdeno Chara, provided he doesn’t miss a game (ridiculous, I know), will hit 1,000 on March 19, with Toronto at the Garden.

Help wanted in Detroit

After a very limited look, the struggling Red Wings last week demoted Fabian Brunnstrom, once a highly sought free agent, to Grand Rapids (AHL) and called up ex-Maine Black Bear Gustav Nyquist, whom they selected No. 121 in the 2008 draft. Nyquist, Maine’s top scorer last season, had 9 points in nine games with Grand Rapids. He made his debut Tuesday night, going 0-0-0 in 11:07 of a 2-1 OT loss to the Wild. On Thursday night, the Wings lost their sixth straight, being outscored, 22-6, in that stretch. They obviously need scoring help, but they also sorely miss the retired Brian Rafalski, whose puck-moving skill on the back end was a huge key in triggering the attack.

Loose pucks

Good move by the NHL, placing players’ numbers on the front of their helmets. Makes for far easier photo IDs, and when they look in the mirror, they are better able to recognize themselves . . . Entering last night’s games, the old-and-experienced trio of Teemu Selanne (Anaheim), Jaromir Jagr (Philadelphia), and Ryan Smyth (Edmonton) all had at least five goals apiece and had piled up a cumulative 38 points. Not bad for a bunch of AARPers with an average age of 38-plus . . . Hardly an ideal start for the Flames (5-6-1), but they’ve been getting some exceptional faceoff work from veteran Brendan Morrison, who early last week had won 61.4 percent of his draws. Morrison, 36, lamented to the Calgary Herald that “way back when’’ he never could get the edge on ex-Bruin Adam Oates at the faceoff dot. “His short little blade,’’ said Morrison. “I could never beat that guy.’’ Oates used a stick unlike any other, the blade about half the standard length, as if it had been chopped off by the penalty box door . . . Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo has a wobbly .884 save percentage, ranking him 40th of 44 NHL goalies. Will need a lot of air to pump those tires . . . For my $25 in annual dues, I’d like the Professional Hockey Writers Association to obtain a temporary restraining order that prevents the NHL from realigning conferences and divisions until one of the hobbled US-based franchises is dragged over the border and replanted in Quebec City . . . While on legal matters, the judge handling the case of Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson’s personal physician when the King of Pop died in June 2009, is Buffalo-born and -raised Michael Pastor. Reuben Pastor, his dad, once owned the Buffalo Bisons, the minor-league club that was the only hockey show in town before the Sabres opened for business at the old Aud in 1970 . . . On last Saturday’s “Coach’s Corner’’ segment, the inimitable Don Cherry labeled the Canucks a bunch of “whiners,’’ reluctant to pay the price to win. “We don’t watch that guy,’’ Ryan Kesler told the Vancouver Sun after the Canucks pinned a 7-4 loss on the Capitals that night. Added Henrik Sedin: “I don’t think anyone who likes hockey, or a player, really listens to what he says.’’

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