Ottawa Senators coach Guy Boucher did a nice thing Wednesday night. He let Chris Neil into his first shootout on the night the legendary tough guy celebrated playing his 1,000th NHL game.
While it was a nice gesture, it was a bad coaching decision.
Neil didn’t score. The Sens lost 4-3 on the next shot by San Jose Sharks’ Kevin Labanc.
Did Boucher do the wrong thing, for the right reason? Absolutely.
There is a reason Neil was playing his 1,002nd NHL game without EVER being in a shootout; he’s a tough guy, a slugger, a hitter, a plugger. Call it what you will.
He’s really good at his job, and based on his longevity alone one of the best in the league. His teammates love him for it. What Neil brings to the table is a rare commodity these days.
He’s also a huge presence in the Ottawa community, supporting many charities and organizations through his own work and that of his family. Kudos for all that, and congratulations on a pretty remarkable milestone.
But no one has ever called Neil a scorer. Perhaps, on a rare night when his stick is hot and he’s had a goal and an assist, or even two goals, a coach might play a hunch and toss him into the skills competition in the quest for a valuable second point.
Not Wednesday, though. Neil played 6:38 of the game. That’s about average these days as his career winds down. In fact, eight minutes per game has probably been about his career average.
He had no points. Two shots on goal, a couple of hits, but no points. So it wasn’t one of those “hot” nights.
Why did Boucher do it? A hunch that just didn’t pan out — he genuinely thought Neil would bury one to put an exclamation point on a memorable night? Trying to be nice, to give a guy who’s poured out his heart and soul for the Senators a moment in the spotlight? Doesn’t matter, does it?
‘It was close”, but no cigar
Neil did make a good effort of it, and he certainly appreciated the gesture.
“It was close. I looked over at the goalie after and he’s like, ‘Whoa’. He didn’t expect that,” Neil told NHL.com Sports Writer Chris Stevenson. “I just had to get it up. I think that’s my go to move I use in practice. I had to try it. It almost worked.
“Nice I got the opportunity to go.”
But he didn’t score. And that was the job at hand.
Now, let’s fast forward. Let’s look at the end of the season, with the Senators out of the playoffs by one point.
How will Neil feel then? We all know the answer to that.
The Senators have, through luck and remarkable goaltending, stayed in the upper half of the NHL table thus far into the season. But the cracks that have been evident all season are starting to widen. Going into Wednesday’s game they’d lost three of four, including the previous two games. The OT defeat marked the first time this season Boucher’s team has lost three in a row.
Losing can creep up on you, and start getting into your head. Boucher’s job is to make the best decisions possible to help his team win, so a loss or two doesn’t extend into a season-killing slump. He didn’t do it.
There’s no way to guarantee another player would’ve scored. But, there are lots of better scorers on the team than Neil. And the puck stops there. Period.
The best way to recognize Neil’s big night would’ve been to win the game. Instead, the Senators lost and Neil’s inability to score becomes part of the reason for it. That’s gotta rankle at least a bit.
It will hurt a lot more in April, if his Ottawa Senators fall a point short and are golfing during the first round.
What do you think? Good decision or bad? Leave a comment and let me know.