OTTAWA — For a couple of laps around the ice during the warm-up to the morning skate, Adam Oates had Alex Ovechkin’s ear.
Talking strategy? Positional play? The art of backchecking?
Perhaps, because suddenly they both laughed visibly. Maybe Oates, the rookie head coach of the Washington Capitals, was teasing Ovechkin once again for missing an empty net, late in Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres, Washington’s first victory of the season.
Oates likely only felt comfortable needling Ovechkin because the tension had been lifted on the Capitals’ season when the big Russian winger finally scored his first of the season that afternoon, a third period power play goal that ended up being the game winner.
On Tuesday, Ovechkin and the Caps came into Ottawa and took their best shot at securing their first winning streak of the season.
Their timing should have been good. With Jason Spezza out of the Senators lineup with an undisclosed upper body injury, the home team fell behind early, trailing 2-0 on a first period goals by Troy Brouwer and Matt Hendricks.
The Senators looked lifeless until a second-period goal by Jim O’Brien made a game of it, and than a third period backhand by Milan Michalek tied it up, setting the stage for some late Sergei Gonchar drama.
While Ovechkin had a few chances, and can still fill an arena with anticipation as he bursts onto a loose puck, he had no shots on goal through 40 minutes and, for most of this night, was just another player out there. When No. 8 drew a slashing penalty near the midpoint of the third, fans cheered in delight. The Senators didn’t score on the man advantage, but continued to press.
It’s tempting to say Ovechkin could benefit by having coach Oates, one of the finest pure passers in NHL history, feathering the puck to him on a nightly basis - especially when the Caps don’t have Ovie with top centre Nicklas Backstrom anymore.
Jay Beagle? My, how the mighty have fallen, when Ovechkin is now playing with a centre who has five career NHL assists, including a secondary assist on Matt Hendricks’ goal in the first period.
Ovechkin admits he’s been bothered by his popgun start - no goals through the first four games, but one goal, one assist after five, before meeting the Senators.
“Of course, I want to be in the position where I score the goals, help my team to win,” Ovechkin said. “It’s my job. So if I have the opportunity to score, I have to score.”
Why haven’t they been going in?
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s bad luck for me,” he said. “If I have a chance to shoot I shoot, they just don’t go in. Again, I score goal (Sunday) night and I hope this turns in a good way.”
Oates believes Ovie’s game is coming around - of course, what else could he say? That it’s not?
“He’s one of our marquee guys,” Oates said. “We want him to score goals. He got the winner for us the other night. And he could have had four. To me, if you’re doing that ... he got the chances because he played well. So, the more he does . . he’s going to score a lot goals.”
Maybe. But Ovechkin, the multi-50-goal guy, has evolved into something lesser, no matter how much the organization talks him up.
Brouwer, the winger who was a key part of the Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup championship in 2010, says the Caps need Ovie scoring.
“Yeah, we do. We have a lot of secondary scoring, but you still need your best players to be your best players,” Brouwer said. “For this team to be successful he needs to be playing hard, he needs to be scoring goals. The rest of the team follows as a result.”
Of all years for a rookie coach to step into a quandary such as the Capitals, this was perhaps the worst, without a training camp or exhibition season to establish familiarity and a style of play. According to Brouwer, the Caps had some video cram sessions “because there’s no chance to have a grace period” in a short season.
For Brouwer and other returning Capitals, Oates is their third coach in the past 14 months. After Bruce Boudreau was spiked, Dale Hunter filled in for the rest of the season and then washed his hands of it returned to junior hockey.
Brouwer said the Caps have been trying to find their “identity” and believes they may have stumbled on it in recent games. For most of Tuesday, they were the harder-working team on the ice, without question.
If Boudreau turned his offensive stars loose and Hunter shackled them, Oates represents the middle ground.
“He’s very adamant about details,” Brouwer said.
Oates is trying to get Washington to play a level of defence from which the offence can spring. A tight, one-goal game loss to the Senators is a sign of where the Caps are going - Caps Lite, compared to the old days when Ovechkin, Mike Green and Backstrom were piling up points.
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