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NHL Notebook

Ovechkin facing crucial leadership test Add to ...

They say the truth shall set you free. If that's the case, the Washington Capitals should be close to snapping out of their seven-game winless funk, which has plunged them all the way down to a tie for fourth overall in the Eastern Conference standings and a mere single point ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Southeast. People remember that the Caps won the division by 38 points last year and think the apocalypse is upon then.

Think again.

It may well be that this early-season adversity finally cures the Capitals of the one habit that is getting old in a hurry - following a strong regular season with a do-nothing playoff. They are being tested now and that test is being filmed, in all its glory, on HBO's 24/7 series and shown in living colour to cable subscribers across North America.

The unvarnished truth is there for all to see too - a fragile hockey team that requires its coach, Bruce Boudreau, to supply the missing energy and confidence in a flat almost lifeless dressing room.

That Boudreau's job should be in jeopardy as a result of the Capitals' current slump is a laughable concept at this point in time.

His overall NHL coaching record is a staggeringly good 157-67-32. On a percentage basis, that's Scotty Bowman territory. And to suggest that his success is all because Boudreau landed in the right place at the right time - replacing Glen Hanlon just as Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green and the rest were entering their NHL primes - is a false assumption as well.

Boudreau developed many of the young prospects on the Capitals' roster in Hershey - and they all grew up together upon arriving in the NHL. The Caps are having the same problem winning when it matters that's plagued San Jose for years in the West.

The fact is, Washington has issues, just like every team in the salary-capped NHL. They rely on young relatively unproven goaltenders and lack a galvanizing veteran leader. Even the player they picked up to add experience to a raw defence corps, Scott Hannan, is quiet by nature.

Accordingly, it will be up to general manager George McPhee to figure out if such a commodity is available between now and the NHL trading deadline (probably not). If McPhee can't find it, then the leadership must come from within - and specifically in the person of Ovechkin, who has been a follow-me type of leader since assuming the captaincy from Chris Clark, as opposed to someone who can rally the troops the way Chicago's Jonathan Toews can.

Ovechkin's primary failing in last year's playoff was going all lone-wolf on his team when they fell behind against the Montreal Canadiens and couldn't solve the goaltending of Jaroslav Halak. This year, it looks as if Ovechkin has made a concentrated effort to be more of a team player on the ice.

For a short time, when he and fellow Russian Alexander Semin were playing together on a line, it was Ovechkin's playmaking that sent Semin off on a goal-scoring spree. It looks as if Ovechkin is caught in between right now, thinking too much about his own role on the team and what actually goes into being the captain of an NHL team.

He still leads the NHL in shots, with 146 in 33 games, but is just five up on Jeff Carter (Philadelphia) and eight ahead of Patrick Sharp (Chicago), for an average of about 4.4 per game. Usually, he is miles ahead in this category. Last year, his average was 5.1 shots per game (and only New Jersey's Zach Parise was even in the ballpark).

So Ovechkin has a lot to sort out in the next four months. Is he a scorer? Is he a set-up man? How does he tangibly demonstrate leadership when his English language skills are improving but still sounds better as a sound bite than anything else? Realistically, if Ovechkin sees this early adversity as a challenge and rises to it, it might be the best thing that ever happened to the Capitals down the road, when it matters most.

In the meantime, it is hard to imagine anyone doing a better job behind the bench than the charismatic Boudreau, handling a team of so many diverse personalities. This is one time where a coaching change could easily have the opposite of the desired effect - and actually send the Capitals retreating further down the standings.

THE PHILLY EFFECT: It was right around this time last year that the Philadelphia Flyers were floundering so badly in the NHL standings that they looked completely dead in the water. At Christmas, they had the same number of points in the standings as Toronto (34 - you can look it up, I had to myself). This year, they have the best record in the NHL and have clicking nicely on all cylinders through the first 33 games. Let's see how Chris Pronger's absence for the next four-to-six weeks because of a foot injury changes anything. The Flyers are uniquely positioned to overcome injuries up front because of their scoring depth and have muddled along with goaltending-by-committee for a second consecutive season.

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Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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