Adam Oates tries to block it, but the grin slips through.
“I was the patient one.”
Others weren’t so much. After a dismal season opening – two wins, nine losses – Oates’s Washington Capitals were in last place as recently as Feb. 22. Alexander Ovechkin, he of the 13-year $124-million contract extension, had all of eight goals by the middle of March. What, people and press were saying, had gone wrong?
General manager George McPhee would have to go. Oates, who had exactly zero experience as an NHL head coach, should never have been hired in the first place. Heads would have to roll ...
Instead, it turned out to be the Washington Capitals on a roll – the most impressive team in the Eastern Conference of late as they came into Ottawa on Thursday on an eight-game winning streak. As for Ovechkin, he’s suddenly leading the league in goals, with 28, and threatening to take over the NHL scoring lead, which at one point seemed a certain lock for the now-injured Sidney Crosby.
Ovechkin might have reached 30 this night had it not been for the stellar play, once again, of Senators goaltender Craig Anderson, who let in but a single goal, by Mike Ribeiro, as Ottawa won 3-1. Washington goaltender Braden Holtby should only have let in one goal, as well, by Kyle Turris, but later made the mistake of leaving his net and passing a puck straight to Ottawa’s Cory Conacher, who promptly sent it into the open Washington net. Turris then scored his second of the game into an intentionally empty net with less than a minute and a half in regulation.
Streaks end, stuff happens – but Oates’s rejuvenated Capitals remain atop the weak Southeast Division, chased only by the Winnipeg Jets for the guaranteed No. 3 playoff slot.
Oates, who was appointed to the Hockey Hall of Fame the same day he was hired as the head coach of the Capitals, had been an NHL skill player. The elite playmaker from Toronto averaged more than a point a game – 1,420 in total, of which more than a thousand were assists – while playing with six teams.
Among the many strange hockey “givens” is the belief that great players make lousy coaches. Rocket Richard, Brad Park, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky and several other stars took up coaching to varying degrees following their playing careers, and none found the success they had known as a player. The Rocket quit the Quebec Nordiques after less than two weeks behind the bench.
But Oates was a different sort of elite player, one who relied more on intellect than speed, on studying as much as skill. He was never even drafted. He learned on the job while wearing skates and figured to do so while wearing a suit and dress shoes, but it would take time.
And time, unfortunately, was not available in the compressed 2013 season. There would be next to no camp, no exhibition games, precious little practice time between games. Oates went straight from running the bench of the Hershey Bears to running a bench that was seeing its third coach in 14 months – Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter preceding him – and included a captain, Ovechkin, sitting on it in what seemed a career-restricting funk.
“They’ve had three coaches in a year, and that’s tough on anybody,” Oates says. “And three different systems, and schemes, and you get off to a tough start coming off a lockout where not everybody’s in the same condition. No camp, so you’ve got different levels of conditioning, and new players, a lot of little factors that went into it.
“We’re just glad it’s behind us.”
He makes it sound easier than it was. Oates, who worked previously as an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning and New Jersey Devils, considered himself a teacher. He had new ideas, one of which was to switch the stubborn Ovechkin, who intensely disliked Hunter, to right wing from the left wing spot where he had risen to become, with Crosby, the face of the NHL. It had, however, been some time before the two had been held up as equal currency.
“I didn’t feel that comfortable out there,” Ovechkin says of the early weeks of the experiment. But then he caught fire Feb. 23 in New Jersey, scoring three times, and is, once again, the brightest flame in the game with Crosby sidelined by a broken jaw.
Oates had a theory that Ovechkin wasn’t engaged as much as he could be on the ice. Oates wanted to establish a style of play where Ovechkin would “touch” the puck more often. Just have to deal with it, not always shoot it or carry it.
“I think we’ve created a scheme where he’s got more touches,” Oates says, “and because of that he’s a little more involved in the game.”
But the key, he repeats, was patience.
“When you have a start like that it’s very difficult,” he says. “But I mean the players were fantastic about it. Really professional. Nobody complained. We just stuck through it and we tried to stay with it and keep teaching and going in the right direction.
“Fortunately, it turned.”
And may well keep turning right into the Stanley Cup playoffs.