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Back to normal? Capitals win and Ovechkin scores vs. Wild

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Things had not been quite right for the Washington Capitals lately.

The team, which had run roughshod over the NHL for much of this season, had lost four games in a row. Alex Ovechkin was on the sort of goal slump that usually only affects mere mortal goal-scorers. The goals, in general, hadn’t been coming.

So Tuesday stands as a huge relief for the Capitals, who also enjoyed the bonus of beating former head coach Bruce Boudreau and the Minnesota Wild 4-2.

Ovechkin? He scored the sort of goal he generates when someone asks you to close your eyes and imagine an Ovechkin goal.

For Capitals fans, Ovechkin scoring from “his office” is almost as comforting as the team getting back on the winning track.

Wild are ‘nowhere near as physical’ as Bruce Boudreau wants them to be

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The Minnesota Wild have never been one of those teams that play a nasty, physical style of hockey, but that may change under new head coach Bruce Boudreau.

Boudreau, who was hired by the Wild this summer, likes for his players to play with an edge to their game.

He had his share of physical players in both Washington and Anaheim and it sounds like he’s going to demand that his new group of players play in a similar way.

On Friday, the 61-year-old put his team through an ‘exhausting’ practice, according to the Minneapolis StarTribune.

“We’re going to have an awful lot of practices like that,” Boudreau said, per the Tribune. “We went over a lot of video [Friday] morning, more than I like to do, but it shows that you can’t play the game without making contact with people. You just can’t do it.

“But what is taking time to get used to a little bit is we’re nowhere near as physical as the teams I’ve coached. So I’m trying to find sort of a halfway medium that they become more physical but don’t get out of what they’re good at. Like, I can’t make them into a bunch of Alex Ovechkins hitting everything that moves.”

Finding that balance will be key because asking his team to change their style of play will be difficult given the roster he has at his disposal.

He’s also concerned about the lack of depth he has up front. He’s comfortable with his top three lines, but he’d like to add to his fourth line. Being able to roll four lines is key in Boudreau’s eyes.

Now that teams will be making cuts, it’ll be interesting to see if the Wild feel the need to pick up a player or two on waivers.

Boudreau doesn’t believe superstars are needed to win

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Bruce Boudreau has coached some pretty good players in his time behind an NHL bench.

In fact, he’s coached some of the best.

In Washington, there was Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. In Anaheim, it was Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

But with all due respect to those guys, the new head coach of the Minnesota Wild doesn’t think superstars are an absolute requirement to win the Stanley Cup.

“As much as I like Ovechkin and Getzlaf and Perry, you don’t need those guys to win,” Boudreau said today, per Chad Graff of the Pioneer Press.

“You can do it the old-fashioned way. You do it as a team,” he added, per Mike Russo of the Star-Tribune.

At the risk of discounting the importance of coming together and working as a cohesive unit, recent history disagrees with Boudreau’s notion. The last team to win the Cup without a genuine superstar was…ummm… the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006?

And to buy that argument, you’d have to believe that Eric Staal, who finished seventh in league scoring with 100 points that season, wasn’t a superstar back then. (Sidney Crosby, for comparison’s sake, had 102 points.)

Now, granted, it’s not like the Wild are completely bereft of stars. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter may be on the wrong side of 30 now, but they remain very effective players. Suter just completed the best offensive season of his career, with 51 points in 82 games.

The real point that Boudreau was trying to make — and perhaps it was mostly a motivational ploy — is that the team is more important than the individual, and also that his experience can help put Minnesota over the top.

On Sunday, Boudreau told NHL Network that he thinks the Wild “can win in the next two years.”

With that sort of timeline, he understands the pressure is very much on. His new job isn’t like the “massive, massive challenge” that Mike Babcock accepted in Toronto. The expectations in Minnesota are to win, and win now.

“I’ve been in the business a long time, and we’re in a winning business,” Boudreau said, per NHL.com.

“So you have to win.”

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

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 he’s 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?

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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.

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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.

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