Adam Oates has been around the NHL long enough to know that when a coach uses the word “quit” in a sentence about his captain, it draws attention.
Meeting with reporters on Thursday, Oates did not backtrack on Wednesday’s description of Alex Ovechkin quitting on a play that led to a goal by Dustin Jeffrey in Tuesday night’s 5-0 loss to the Stars.
The bigger issue, Oates said, is that his 28-year-old captain recognizes his shortcomings and addresses them.
“I didn’t talk to him yet about that particular play,” Oates said. “We will. The message is the same message I tell him all the time.
“It’s a shame because he actually pushed hard up the ice [into the offensive zone] and I’m sure when he turned around he saw we had three guys back and figured they’d get the job done and they didn’t.”
They didn’t because 42-year-old Ray Whitney blew past Ovechkin to set up the goal.
“Ovi got caught flat-footed,” Oates said. It happens to everybody at times. Every player has his momentary lapses and it’s a reminder to him that you can’t. You’re in the spotlight, you can’t.”
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Asked about how players are held accountable for quitting on plays, Oates said, “It starts with himself, and then players and coaches.”
Ovechkin was not made available to the media on Thursday.
With no even-strength goals in his last 16 games, Ovechkin will be reunited with center Nicklas Backstrom on a line with left wing Mikhail Grabovski Friday night when the Capitals try to remain in the playoff hunt with a game against the Devils in Newark [7 p.m., CSN-Plus].
Ovechkin has played on a line with Jay Beagle and Marcus Johansson for the past eight games, a move necessitated after Ovechkin was a minus player in 10 straight games.
Since returning from the Sochi Olympics, where Russia finished a disappointing fifth, Ovechkin has eight goals in 17 games. Seven of those goals have come on the power play and he is a minus-19 in those games.
With 48 goals and a minus-36, he is on pace to become the first player in the history of the NHL to have the most goals and the worst plus-minus rating.
Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau, who saw Ovechkin score 50 goals and finish a plus-45 when he coached the Capitals in 2009-10, told TSN Radio on Wednesday that he’s baffled by Ovechkin’s lack of production 5-on-5.
“It blows my mind,” Boudreau said. “Coaching Alex for four years he was always in the plus-30s to 40s. But when you hear a stat that he hasn’t got an even-strength point in March, it’s pretty mind-boggling for the amount of ice time he plays.”
Boudreau said he thought Ovechkin’s production through the first half of this season – he had 11 power-play goals and 18 even-strength goals through 41 games – was a good distribution.
“This is a real anomaly. Watching the game [Tuesday night] I felt really bad for him. He looked very frustrated.”
That could be behind Oates’ reasoning to reunite Ovechkin with Backstrom, even though the tandem was on the ice for a string of even-strength goals against before being broken up.
“I’m always focused on Ovi in terms of getting him his touches and goals, no question,” Oates said. “But the team still comes first. He knows that. He knows how I feel and we talk about it all the time.
“We got points in seven of the eight games when we did it. The results I was looking for was a balance in the lines and the pace of our game. Grabo was banged up and we were weak in the middle. You’re doing a little bit of patchwork and I thought Beags did a great job for us.”