Brian Boucher

My Favorite Goal: Ovechkin scores ‘The Goal’ as a rookie in 2006

Welcome to “My Favorite Goal,” a regular feature from NBC Sports where our writers and personalities remember the goals that have meant the most to them. These goals have left a lasting impression and there’s a story behind each one.

Today, James O’Brien remembers Alex Ovechkin‘s sprawling goal against the Coyotes during his rookie season in 2006.

The greatest goal scorer I’ve ever seen scored the greatest goal I’ve ever seen.

Hockey generally isn’t a sport that’s friendly to stars shining with huge individual moments, at least not compared to other sports. That’s what makes all of the symmetry so special, why even Ovechkin struggles to explain how he did it, and how his Capitals teammates couldn’t even replicate the moment in practice.

Unlike some other favorite goals, Ovechkin’s goal wasn’t directly important. It wasn’t even important in the game it happened; his crummy Capitals were already up 5-1 against the also-crummy Coyotes on Jan. 16, 2006 when Ovechkin scored “the goal.”

Ovechkin snatched the puck in the neutral zone, blasted past defenseman Paul Mara with a curl-and-drag move, but Mara took Ovechkin off of his feet. That should have been the end of it: a blur of speed and power that served as a reminder that Ovechkin can make something out of nothing.

And then he really made something out nothing.

Ovechkin was essentially spinning on his back and neck, yet he somehow found a way to not only get a shot off, but to hook his arm in a way that sent the puck right into the net. A sprawling Brian Boucher couldn’t do anything about it, and even Wayne Gretzky had to marvel at the replay during his darkest hockey days as coach of the Coyotes.

Gretzky’s face would be our face … if his jaw also hit the floor.

Ovechkin’s goal against the Coyotes was one of those albums that only gets better the more you listen to it, or a movie that only improves with further viewings. What I’m saying is that it was “The Big Lebowski” of goals.

Brooks Laich really tied the explanation together when he explained what made it so special to the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan in a great retrospective of its 10-year anniversary in 2016:

” … This had so many facets: cutting across the ice, pulling the puck in tight, getting hit by a defender, rolling away from the net and facing away from the net and then hooking your arm around and getting it on the puck and directing it into the net,” Laich said. “There were so many variables in that goal that you really had to watch it so many times to really understand how special it was.”

What it meant to Ovechkin

“The goal” came at a powerful time for Ovechkin during a rookie season where he’d ultimately beat out Sidney Crosby for the 2005-06 Calder Trophy.

Ovechkin managed his first hat trick during the game before “the goal,” scoring three against the then-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim on Jan. 13, 2006. Managing a goal like that against the Coyotes, and doing so in front of Gretzky, had to feel like a “you made it” moment for Ovechkin as a rookie.

“Obviously lucky, but I’ll take it,” Ovechkin said, via the Canadian Press’ Stephen Whyno in 2016. “For that moment, it was unbelievable time. My dream was come true: I play in the NHL, I did that kind of special goal and Gretzky was there, as well.”

It’s tough to argue with former Capitals GM George McPhee’s assessment of Ovechkin: that he’s just that hungry to score goals.

“He never gave up on that,” McPhee said. “That’s why he’s a great goal-scorer: He just has a phenomenal shot, but it’s the desire to score. He’s always been so hungry to score.”

Zooming out

You might compare Ovechkin’s unthinkable goal to Odell Beckham Jr.’s seemingly impossible one-handed catch from November 2014. Both were superb physical talents doing impossible things, even as rookies, providing highlights that became downright iconic. Each player also can’t claim that the specific highlight reel moment was that important, as neither player’s team made the playoffs that year, and Beckham Jr.’s Giants even lost that game.

In considering Ovechkin’s goal, something emerged from my heart — or maybe my subconscious — for me, and maybe other hockey fans of a certain age, the early days of Ovechkin – Crosby had parallels to Sammy Sosa vs. Mark McGwire.

After an ugly MLB strike, the baseball world was captivated by Sosa and McGwire trading homers, and drumming their race quite amicably. The NHL needed its own ray of sunshine after the abominable full-season lockout of 2004-05, and it got some help from a bucket of goals (plus, not coincidentally, more penalties), but also the promise of two budding young superstars in Crosby and Ovechkin. Some grumbled at all the attention they received. Yet, in retrospect, those grumblings should have been silenced by that absolutely ridiculous sprawling goal.

That it happened in what was essentially garbage time made it powerful in its own way: if you miss a game, you might miss Ovechkin or some other superstar pulling off something mind-blowing.

The Ovechkin goal didn’t “save hockey,” nor did the Crosby – Ovechkin rivalry, or even any series or team.

That goal was a big part of soothing my hockey soul, as was that thrilling, and wild season. Although, come to think of it … maybe my jaw pops because of all the times it hit the floor while I stopped, paused, and rewound that astonishing video.

PREVIOUSLY ON MY FAVORITE GOAL
McCarty shows off goal-scoring hands during 1997 Cup Final

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Berube delivered confidence when Blues needed it the most

ST. LOUIS — Brian Boucher was able to experience the two sides of Craig Berube in professional hockey.

During his rookie season in 1999-00, the then-22-year-old Boucher was a teammate of Berube’s on the Philadelphia Flyers. At that time, Berube was in his 16th season and had nearly 800 NHL games under his belt. The veteran tough guy was well-liked and kept guys honest in the dressing room. More importantly, he wasn’t afraid to speak up, even on a team that featured a number of players who had plenty of career success like Mark Recchi, Eric Lindros, Rick Tocchet, Eric Desjardins, and John LeClair.

Berube’s personality was a hit with teammates because he could crack a joke one minute then tell it straight when a player or the team needed a kick. Those qualities he possessed 20 years ago clearly still remain today as he was one of the key factors in the St. Louis Blues’ turnaround this season.

Boucher could see those traits back then.

“100%. He could talk to the best player on the team the same way would talk to his linemate on the fourth line,” said Boucher, who’s been analyst with NBC Sports since 2015. “There was no separation to him. He treated everybody the same. I think everybody had a ton of respect for him just because of the role that he played on the team. One of the toughest guys I’ve ever played with in the NHL.”

Berube compiled 3,149 penalty minutes in his NHL career with 241 fights, per HockeyFights.com, helping make up that large number. So when he transitioned to an assistant coach role with the Flyers’ AHL affiliate in 2004-05, the players knew his resume and respected him for the way he played the game.

His approach in communicating with players was and remains a simple one: there are no games. Berube tells it like it is and in a black and white manner.

“You’re not confused when you speak with him,” said Boucher, “you know exactly what the message is. I think guys really appreciate that. Whether it’s at the NHL level or the AHL, they just want to know where they stand, what their role is going to be and how to execute it.”

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When Blues general manager hung the still-remaining (for now) interim tag on Berube in November, the new head coach had an advantage compared to an outsider entering the situation. He knew the roster. He knew the skill level of the players, and his relationship with them was already good having been in the assistant coach role where you typically assume the “good cop” role. 

Berube had confidence in his team, something that he noticed the players were lacking as they sat with a 7-9-3 record. 

“It’s a good hockey team, got good players,” Berube said at the introductory press conference. “We’ve got to get moving in the right direction.”

It took time, but but his message eventually began to resonate.

Brayden Schenn has seen what Berube can do. In six of his last eight years in the NHL he’s had Berube as either a head coach or an assistant. The pair were with the Flyers in Berube’s two seasons there after he replaced Peter Laviolette early in the 2013-14 season.

Schenn saw Berube do in St. Louis what he was able to do in a short time in Philadelphia.

“Just got us to believe,” Schenn said. “Believe in one another, believe we’re a good hockey team. He took down the standing board in the room and worried about one game at a time, and that’s really all it was.”

When Berube was elevated, the Blues sat 30th in the NHL. The process of improvement took some time as St. Louis won only nine of their first 20 games under Berube, and we all know the climb up the mountain began after being dead last in the league on Jan. 3.

“Just don’t look back” is Berube’s mantra. Everyone knew how bad the team’s record was, but that was in the past. The Blues couldn’t change yesterday so they had to focus on changing tomorrow.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Things looked bleak for the Blues at the start of the new year. Had the tailspin continued into February, Armstrong’s comment after firing Mike Yeo about his patience with the core group being “at its thinnest point” could have led to major changes to the roster. But he held firm and began to see some light. Confidence was coming back and Jordan Binnington was soon on his way.

Four months later the Blues are playing for the Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years.

“It is about the players,” said Berube. “They’re the ones that go out and do the job and play. They’ve really bought into what we want from them. I think when we took over, we wanted a team-first mentality. We wanted to put the team first. We wanted to get these guys playing for each other on a nightly basis. That was the biggest turnaround for this hockey team.”

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Tyler Bozak appreciates Berube’s direct approach. He also enjoys the coach’s style in dealing with players.

“He’s almost a teammate at times out there,” he said. “Then he’s also very demanding at the same time. It’s a pretty cool dynamic.”

When Berube speaks, players and teammates listen. Boucher remembers that well.

“When he has to get a message across, he gets a message across,” he said. “It doesn’t take forever to get it across. He’s direct, to the point. You understand where he’s coming from. … He hasn’t lost that as a coach. He’s not afraid and go tease a guy or make fun of a guy — not in a way that would embarrass a player, but the kind that would bring a group together. There’s a real skill to that and you have to have the respect of guys to do that.”

Berube will shed the “interim” part from his title this summer. Armstrong’s stated plan back in November that he was going to cast a wide net in a coaching search has been whittled down to a list of one. Along with consistent goaltending, all the Blues needed was some confidence and the right messenger.

“He has conviction when he speaks,” said Boucher. “If he says something, he’s thought about it and when he believes in something, you believe him.”

Blues-Bruins Game 3 is Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET from Enterprise Center on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Flyers goalie Boucher signs in Switzerland

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Brian Boucher’s professional career will continue, just not in North America.

Nicola Berger of Neue Luzerner Zeitung in Switzerland reports the 36 year-old goalie has signed with EV Zug in the Swiss National League. Boucher reportedly got the nod over former Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro for the job.

Last season, Boucher played four games with the Philadelphia Flyers but also played 16 more with the AHL’s Adirondack Phantoms.

A 13-year NHL veteran, Boucher has had his share of ups and downs after starting his career in Philly back in the 1999-2000 season.

He saw his ability to play threatened two seasons ago with Carolina when he suffered a serious groin injury. Now he’ll join fellow Americans and former NHLers Rob Schremp and Andrew Hutchinson in Switzerland.

Flyers promote Leighton – will he start Sunday?

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The Philadelphia Flyers suffered an “embarrassing” loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday and followed it up with a 3-0 defeat against the Boston Bruins this afternoon.

With the Flyers rapidly losing ground in their hunt for a playoff spot, they have called up goaltender Michael Leighton and demoted Brian Boucher, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi.

The question is why. Is it possible that Leighton might start in the Flyers’ Sunday contest against the Buffalo Sabres (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), as the Philadelphia Daily News pondered.

Ilya Bryzgalov has started in 24 of the Flyers’ 26 games this season, including three games in the last five days. Leaning that heavily on a goaltender would be asking a lot under normal circumstances, but with the condensed schedule, Bryzgalov might be hitting a wall.

At the same time, Leighton, 31, allowed five goals on 26 shots against the Tampa Bay Lightning in his only start this season. It was just his second NHL game since he surrendered an overtime goal to Patrick Kane in the deciding contest of the 2010 Stanley Cup finals.

Either way, Sunday is another critical contest for Philadelphia as they try to stop the bleeding. Buffalo is just two points behind them and has played in one fewer games.

Philadelphia failed to take advantage of their recent opportunities to close the gap on some serious contenders for a playoff spot. They need to at least beat the few teams that are below them.

Penguins roar back from 4-1 deficit to beat Flyers

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Much has been made about how much the Pittsburgh Penguins struggle holding onto a lead. On the bright side, most leads seem pretty unsafe against them, as well.

The Philadelphia Flyers built a 4-1 cushion against the Penguins in the first period on Thursday, chasing Marc-Andre Fleury in the process. Ilya Bryzgalov felt his pain tonight, as Pittsburgh eventually scuttled him for Brian Boucher while closing the gap during a strong final 40 minutes for a 5-4 win.

Here are the highlights.

The Flyers haven’t blown at least a three-goal lead and lost in regulation since Jan. 17, 1993 (vs. Detroit), according to Elias Sports Bureau. Bryzgalov declined to comment after the game, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi reports.

Philly should be frustrated either way, but some will wonder if Scott Hartnell tied the game in the third period on this play, which a review confirmed as a no-goal.

Regardless, the Penguins are now second overall in the East while the Flyers slide to 11th.