With an aging core, the Wild could be Boudreau’s biggest challenge yet

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When the Minnesota Wild announced they’d agreed to terms with Bruce Boudreau, they made sure to note the great records he had in Washington (201-88-40) and Anaheim (208-104-40).

In the first paragraph of the press release, it mentioned how Boudreau became the fastest coach in NHL history to reach the 400-win mark and how he leads all active NHL coaches in winning percentage.

The Wild were not wrong to highlight all that. They’d just spent a lot of money on a new coach, and a 409-192-80 record is definitely something to be trumpeted.

That being said, what the press release didn’t mention is all the talent that Boudreau had been lucky enough to coach in his two previous NHL stops. When he took over in Washington, Alex Ovechkin was just entering his third season, and Nicklas Backstrom was only a rookie. When he got hired by Anaheim, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry were still a few years away from 30.

In that sense, what’s he got now in Minnesota is different. The two core guys, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, are each 31 years old. The captain, Mikko Koivu, is 33. Those three can still play — they were the Wild’s top three scorers during the regular season — but hockey players don’t typically get better in their 30s.

It’s why questions like the following are being asked in the local newspaper:

In retrospect, would a coach like Boudreau have been a better fit four years ago — a year after Yeo was hired, when the Wild made a bold push forward by signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter — than he is now?

That is to say, do you have more confidence that the Wild’s window for winning a championship was wider in the past four years than it will be in the next four based on roster construction — including the fact that Parise and Suter will both be 32 by the middle of next season?

Fair questions, both of them. Unfortunately, time machines don’t exist, making them tough to answer.

But considering the aging core, perhaps Boudreau’s biggest challenge will be to take the young players on the roster — guys like Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula, Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter, Jonas Brodin, and Matt Dumba — and make them even better. Because for all the talk about making the Wild “accountable,” the real upside on most teams is found in their youth.

To illustrate, take a team like San Jose, where Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are each 36 years old. While those two can still play, a big reason for the Sharks’ success has been 27-year-old Logan Couture, their second-line center. Without him, where they would be? The answer is, probably not where they are right now.

So, can Coyle reach the level that Couture has reached? It’s a big ask, we realize that. But the Wild, as Thomas Vanek so helpfully pointed out in September, “don’t have maybe the strongest depth in the middle.”

Depth down the middle wasn’t the issue in Anaheim, where Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler are the top two centers. 

Boudreau won’t have that luxury in Minnesota.

For that reason, and a few more, turning the Wild around might be his toughest task yet.

Related: In Minnesota, skepticism greets Fletcher’s optimism

Pressing Playoff Question: Is this finally Alex Ovechkin’s time?

Alex Ovechkin
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What a difference a year makes.

Around this time in 2014, Alex Ovechkin experienced a season so rotten his hair literally turned gray. The Caps missed the playoffs, people obsessed over his plus/minus rating and the Russian Olympic hockey team crashed and burned in Sochi.

source:

Some paint Barry Trotz as the wizard who finally got Ovechkin to play along. Others say No. 8’s scoring stats really aren’t that different from 2013-14. Wherever you land in that specific argument, the tenor is far more positive regarding the Ovechkin this year than it was the last.

Much of sports writing revolves around praising or lambasting a star player when his team wins or loses — yet the dirty secret is that success or failure often boils down to the supporting cast.

So the biggest reason why this might be Ovechkin’s year isn’t because he stopped “gliding.” It’s because the Caps are the most competent and stable they’ve been since the happy days of the Bruce Boudreau era.

“This is a different team compared to the last couple years,” Ovechkin said, per CSN Washington. “A mature team, an experienced team.

“It’s a lot different.”

Simply put, Ovi’s getting a lot more help.

source: AP
Source: AP

 

Braden Holtby’s put together a borderline Vezina season; while Semyon Varlamov showed flashes of brilliance with Washington, the bottom line is that Holtby’s the best net option the Capitals have had since Ovechkin first put on that goofy eagle sweater.

The Capitals also invested big-time in their defense this offseason, and it’s paid off. Matt Niskanen is starting to feel it, with 11 of his 31 points pouring in since March. John Carlson’s enjoying easily the best season of his career, and Mike Green hasn’t been too shabby as he chases a new deal, either.

Washington’s offense isn’t as explosive as it once was, yet there’s reason to think that they can survive a slow night or two from their big guns. Ten different players scored at least 10 goals this year; 17 skaters scored at least 17 points. Marcus Johansson found the back of the net a career-high 20 times, and Troy Brouwer tied a personal best with 43 points.

Caps GM Brian McLellan says the club’s secondary scoring behind Ovechkin (and Nicklas Backstrom) could be vital for a successful Cup run.

“That’s going to be the key, I think, to winning a lot of the games,” he said, per CSN Washington. “Goals scored by third and fourth line guys at the right moment. A rebound goal, a traffic goal. I don’t think it’s total numbers, I think it’s more impact goals than it is anything else for those guys.

“We’re going to need all those guys to chip in – [Jason] Chimera, [Joel] Ward, Brooks Laich, [Curtis] Glencross – we’re going to need big goals from those guys to be successful.”

Overall, the Capitals have the most forward depth, best goalie and best defensive group since Ovechkin came to DC. They also have an experienced head coach in a wide-open Eastern Conference.

Will that be enough for Ovechkin to finally break through at the team level after all those years of frustration? A lot of things can happen in the postseason, obviously, but it’s been a long time since Ovechkin’s outlook was this optimistic.

Getzlaf on Ovechkin: ‘I didn’t know he was going to dive the way he did tonight’

Ryan Getzlaf, Alex Ovechkin
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Alexander Ovechkin and Andre Burakovsky each scored twice Sunday night as the Washington Capitals defeated the Anaheim Ducks 5-3.

Marcus Johansson’s 14th of the season at 3:27 of the second period stood to be the game winner.

Ovechkin, who also assisted on Burakovsky’s two goals, now has a league-leading 36 on the season passing Rangers’ forward Rick Nash.

Not everyone was impressed with Ovechkin’s four-point night.

Ovechkin and Ryan Getzlaf had a run-in on the ice during the first period. Post-game Getzlaf had some choice words for the Washington captain.

“I didn’t know he was going to dive the way he did tonight,” said Getzlaf per the L.A. Times’ Helene Elliott. “All over the [expletive] ice. That part of it is a little embarrassing. Pardon my language. He’s a great player.

“He’s going to score goals and make plays. That other stuff’s embarrassing.”

Andrew Cogliano scored both goals for the Ducks. It was his first multi-goal game since Mar. 2, 2013.

Defenseman Hampus Lindholm had two assists in the loss.

Francois Beauchemin appeared in his 500th game with the Ducks Sunday night. He joins Ruslan Salei (594) as the only other Ducks defenseman to reach the milestone.

Justin Peters made 30 saves for the win while John Gibson stopped 23 shots in the loss.

Anaheim lost defenseman Sami Vatanen (lower body) and forward Matt Beleskey (upper body) in the first period. Neither player returned to the game and Bruce Boudreau had no update on either player post-game.

Big games haven’t been kind to Bruce Boudreau

Bruce Boudreau
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If you were to name the top 10 head coaches in the NHL, Bruce Boudreau would almost certainly factor in somewhere. Still, his lack of deep postseason success probably explains why his name rarely comes up in discussions regarding the absolute elite.

One can only wonder how different things might be if his Washington Capitals and Anaheim Ducks didn’t lose (and sometimes even totally flop) in Game 7 situations, though. Boudreau is now 1-5 in career playoff Game 7’s and his teams have frequently lost in ways that overshadowed fantastic regular seasons.

He’s been in those situations quite often, too. Boudreau has only avoided a seven-game series in 2010-11 (when the Capitals were swept in the second round) and 2011-12 (when he was fired 22 games into the season by Washington and couldn’t direct the Ducks into the postseason in 58 games).

Other than that, the pattern has been almost disturbing: outstanding regular seasons followed by crushing Game 7 defeats. Let’s take a look back.

Note: To keep things simple, remember that Boudreau’s team won its division in every season but 2011-12.

Washington years

2007-08: Boudreau guides the Capitals to a 37-17-7 record in the 61 games he coached, earning his only Jack Adams Award in the process.

The Philadelphia Flyers beat Washington 3-2 in OT in Game 7 of a first-round series. Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin scored the Captials’ two goals in that game, but Joffrey Lupul beat Cristobal Huet for the game-winner in overtime.

2008-09: The Capitals went 50-24-8 for 108 standings points.

The 2009 postseason represents the first (and only) time Boudreau has won a playoff Game 7, as his team dispatched soon-to-be regular playoff opponent the New York Rangers in the first round. The Capitals fought back from 2-0 and 3-1 series deficits to win this series. They beat the Rangers 2-1 with Sergei Fedorov scoring the game-winner.

This set the stage for the memorable seven-game series against the Pittsburgh Penguins/a “Top this” showdown between Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. The decisive Game 7 was pretty much a bloodbath, though; Marc-Andre Fleury stopped an early Ovechkin chance and the Penguins built a 2-0 lead in the first period. They eventually dominated to a 6-2 win.

2009-10: The Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy by eight points with a fantastic 121-point regular season, yet they lost to the Montreal Canadiens in seven games in a first-round series that doubled as Jaroslav Halak’s peak. (Along with Halak helping the Habs beat Pittsburgh in seven games as well in round two.)

Game 7 against Montreal was another hard-luck loss for Washington in that series. Semyon Varlamov allowed two goals on 16 shots while Halak made 41 out of 42 saves. The Canadiens took the series with a 2-1 win in Game 7.

(Oddly enough, the Capitals went to two seven-game series during the 2011-12 season in which they fired Bruce Boudreau after just 22 games. Dale Hunter went 1-1 in those full-length series. In fact, Washington’s last two playoff series have been seven-game losses to the Rangers.)

Anaheim years

2012-13: The venue and conference changed, but the results seemed unsettling in their similarities: another great regular season followed by a tough Game 7 loss (once again in the first round).

The Detroit Red Wings beat the Ducks 3-2 in Game 7 of their first-round series as an Anaheim comeback bid fell short.

2013-14: One cannot help but wonder what would have happened if the Ducks didn’t manage an unlikely third-period turnaround and overtime win in Game 6 against the Dallas Stars. They avoided a seventh game in the first round, but couldn’t do so against the Los Angeles Kings in round two.

You probably remember what happened on Friday, but if not, the Kings cruised to a 6-2 win.

CSNWashington.com’s Ben Raby points out the similarities between the Ducks falling to the Kings and the Capitals losing to the Penguins in respective second-round series:

Anaheim’s Game 7 loss to the Kings had an eerily similar feel as the Capitals’ 2009 Game 7 loss at home against the rival Pittsburgh Penguins. Consider that in both cases: 1) the home team had an early breakaway from its leading goal-scorer (Alex Ovechkin in 2009; Corey Perry in 2014) but could not convert, 2) Boudreau pulled his rookie starting goalie once the visitors took a 4-0 second period lead (Semyon Varlamov in 2009; John Gibson in 2014) and 3) the home team pulled within 5-1 late in the second frame, before ultimately falling by a 6-2 score.

Boudreau has to hope that his team can break this unsightly pattern sooner rather than later.

Ducks’ Koivu, Boudreau aiming for first trip to conference final

Saku Koivu
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Bruce Boudreau oversaw four playoff runs with the Washington Capitals, but the talented squad headlined by Alex Ovechkin never got past the second round. If they had, perhaps he wouldn’t be in Anaheim now.

His Ducks are just one win away from taking him to a conference final for the first time in his career as a head coach. If Anaheim beats Los Angeles in Game 6 tonight, it will be proof that he is capable of guiding a squad through a deep postseason run, even if he couldn’t make it work with Washington.

Perhaps there’s someone on the Ducks that wants this win even more though. At the age of 39, this might be Saku Koivu’s last chance to finally get to the conference final.

“I think Saku, especially,” Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf said, per NHL.com. “[Teemu] always wants to go out on a high note, I’m sure. Given the opportunity, I’m sure he’d love to. Saku, I know, really wants this. He wants to get to the Finals. He wants an opportunity to play for that Cup, and we’d love to give it to him.”

The Ducks know they can’t get ahead of themselves. The Kings want this too. Koivu, Boudreau, and the rest of the Ducks won’t get past them without earning it.