The Capitals’ first season under Coach Adam Oates has come to a close, and it’s fascinating to see the storyline that took this team from ugly beginning to ugly end—with a lot of magnificent moments in between, and some positive takeaways and question marks for the future.
Actually, this season’s story began even earlier, according to Brooks Laich’s chronology, with the thread of accountability—no player mattering more than anyone else—reaching back to Dale Hunter’s regime. By the time the Capitals had a chance to build on that team concept come January 2013, however, there even more elements to figure out: a new coaching staff, a new system, a shortened season.
And it wasn’t pretty, as the Capitals found themselves in last place.
“When we weren’t winning, when we weren’t doing things well early on in the year, we weren’t as much of a team as we needed to be, off the ice and on the ice,” Laich said of the early part of the season.
Appropriately enough, the perennial villain for Washington fans, the Penguins, was the one who gave the story a turn, if by no other virtue than where the Pens fell on the NHL schedule.
Laich calls the day after the loss to Pittsburgh that put the team at 2-8-1 “a big day for this organization.”
“For our group of guys, there was a lot of stuff that was addressed on that day, and what was said and who said it is best left behind scenes, but that was a big day, and from there, we turned things around,” Laich says.
But this was no wave-the-magic-wand-and-go-to-the-ball turnaround. They won three games, then sputtered. Yet Oates, or, as Jay Beagle says, “Oatsey,” stayed positive through the entire roller coaster that was this season, surprising all the players with how he handled said roller coaster. Beagle mentioned he’d show players some positive video clips after a loss, which the forward says not many coaches do.
The team hit another mile marker mile marker when it traveled to Pittsburgh again in March—and lost again, this time 2-1. It was, oddly enough, one of the most fruitful losses in recent memory, as the Capitals followed up with a back-to-back sweep of a division rival, the Winnipeg Jets, also fighting for a spot in the postseason.
“Sometimes you just need a spark, a jolt, and you know, brothers fight a little bit, but at the same time, you’re always on the same side,” Laich says.
From there, the story gets much more rosy for a time. But it’s worth pausing for a moment to note Laich’s “brothers” analogy, because it’s the same one Adam Oates used at the end of March when questioned about how close the locker room was.
And it’s usually not in a Hallmark card “we love each other like brothers” way—it’s used to show that squabbles happen, but in the end, the name on the front of the jersey is the same.
“They seem very close. … I also think they’re family, they’re brothers, so brothers argue too, so there’s days where they’re not close,” was Oates’ quote as his team finally found a groove.
Backtracking a bit, those two games in Winnipeg kicked off in the win-loss column what would become the rejuvenation of the Capitals’ season. It went so well, until a 5-0 loss in Game 7 brought every Capitals fan back to their annual nightmare. Oates said Alex Ovechkin texted him 20 times till 2 a.m. after the Game 7 loss.
And now, the offseason timeline begins far earlier than any Capital would like. For manager and coach, that’s one thing. For the players, it looks different. Oates has, throughout the season, discussed with players how to individually improve their games. And that’s work they can take with them into the summer.
Beagle, for example, says he’ll try things like bag skating with the puck, and work on handling the puck more on his stick. For the goaltenders, it’s slightly different. Braden Holtby said it’s extremely hard to get “an honest practice” in the offseason, and thus the little intricacies in goaltending are easier worked on in season. The offseason, for him, is more about mental preparation and clearing his head.
Meanwhile, Oates is preaching the Boston Bruins’ recent history to the team—the times the Bruins hadn’t capitalized in their years surrounding the Stanley Cup triumph.
And, mark this quote from Wednesday down for future reference: “We’re gonna win a Cup here,” Mike Green said.
That timeline has yet to be written.