Washington Capitals Mike Green (52) skates on the ice during an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008, in Washington. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Manuel Balce Ceneta
ARLINGTON, Va. - On one side of the Washington Capitals' locker room sat the runaway leading goal scorer in the NHL: Alex Ovechkin, the 22-year-old Russian with an offbeat personality, crazy sense of fashion, riveting presence on the ice and a record-breaking US$124-million contract.
On the other side sat Mike Green. Also 22. Also with a can't-take-your-eyes-off-him game. Budding guitarist. A Canadian known among teammates not so much for his fashion, but for his hairdos.
And also leading the league in scoring - among defencemen.
"Do you know when the last time that was done?" asked centre Brooks Laich.
The answer: The 1988-89 Pittsburgh Penguins were the last NHL team to have both the leading overall goal scorer (Mario Lemieux) and the most goal-prolific defenceman (Paul Coffey).
"That's almost 20 years since it's been done," Laich said. "I think we have a good shot at it."
Whether they achieve that mark or not, the recently woebegone Capitals could quickly become the envy of teams lacking young, exciting talent, especially if they find more keepers like Green, who has 15 goals, including an NHL-best three in overtime entering Thursday's games.
"He's a great skater, sees the ice," said Shaone Morrisonn, Green's defensive partner. "And he can stick-handle in a phone booth."
Ovechkin and Green were drafted on the same day in the same round, but Green's selection at No. 29 overall in 2004 had nowhere near the magnitude of the coronation party for Ovechkin at No. 1. While Ovechkin's impact was immediate - he was a Day One contributor once the lockout ended - Green paid his dues in the minors in Hershey, Pa., where he helped the Bears win an AHL title and left quite an impression on a coach that pushed aggressive, attacking hockey.
With the big club, however, Green struggled to find himself under a more conservative coach. Green's NHL fortunes changed for good on Thanksgiving Day, when the Capitals fired Glen Hanlon and replaced him with that very coach from Hershey, Bruce Boudreau.
"He just took the reins off him and let him go," goalie Olie Kolzig said. "He's provided the offensive punch that we haven't had on the blue-line since Sergei Gonchar."
Boudreau has given Green the green light. No. 52 often leads the Capitals in minutes and skates coast-to-coast, seemingly spending as much time harassing the opposing goalie as he is defending his own.
"Any time the coach doesn't limit you to only doing one or two things and lets you play your game and explore what you can do, it helps out," Green said. "You can further your abilities, instead of being one-dimensional. In the past that's what it was, it was trying to make me into a defensive defenceman, which wasn't really my game."
In Wednesday night's overtime loss to the New York Islanders, Green skated deftly along the blue line before unleashing a shot that was deflected into the net for the Capitals' second goal. In the second period, he did the job that befits his title by clearing away the puck to thwart a 2-on-1 rush.
"He knows he's got two parts to his game, one being offensively and one being defensively," Boudreau said. "He's got to do both. Every time Mike starts to do too much and starts leading the rush instead of coming up with the rush, we make sure we have a chat with him and tell him he's just getting a little too excited."
It helps that Green is paired with Morrisonn, who understands he needs to cover for Green during those offensive forays.
"He knows that I'm reliable for him to be back there," Morrisonn said. "I told him 'Just go, don't worry about it, and get back as fast as you can.' That's the thing about him, he'll go, but he's fast enough to get back and catch some of the guys coming back into our zone. I'm not really worried about him. He understands we've got to be solid defensively."
Green's teammates find it surprising that he's never played forward - and that he has never wanted to be anything but a defencemen, having grown up admiring Al MacInnis and Scott Niedermayer.
"He's been a defenceman that plays like a forward, so there was no sense to move him up there when you could do the same stuff that he's doing from behind," Boudreau said. "I think it's pretty well established that he's going to be a defenceman the rest of his life."
As for the hair, teammates remember Green for growing the wildest of mohawks and an unsightly beard during Hershey's run to the AHL title two years ago. His hair looks tame now, but he said he's ready to reprise the effort should the Capitals make the playoffs.
"As soon as the playoffs start, I'll have one," he said.
Don't expect his balding coach to join in. For the record, Green's play doesn't make everyone's hair stand on end.
"That ain't happening," Boudreau said. "Even if I had one hair on my head, it's not going to be sticking up."