What are Caps fans supposed to think at this point?
Fresh off the team’s 4-3 comeback victory against Boston Tuesday, Karl Alzner stood in the locker room, patiently trying to help me make sense of the Gordian knot that is Washington’s season.
During a recent radio interview Alzner gave to LaVar and Dukes at 106.7 the Fan, I remembered hearing the Capitals’ defenseman say something to the effect that he thought the team was capable of winning a Stanley Cup (he can’t remember exactly what he said, and I can’t find the audio, so we agreed it was “something along those lines” when talking after the game Tuesday).
Of course, that’s the appropriate PR line for a player in that situation, but I respect Alzner’s opinion immensely—it’s hard to imagine him ever saying a careless word in his life, and his style is not to fall back into clichés to get out of interview situations. Still, the sentiment he mentioned on the show struck me as odd when compared to his quotes before the Bruins’ game, where he said, according to The Washington Post, “We just hope that we are on an upswing and we can hang with them. It’d be not good for the confidence if you get blown out by them.”
So was there or was there not a question in their minds that a playoff team was out of their caliber, especially if Alzner thought this was a team capable of winning the Cup?
“I felt all along that we had a chance. I knew that we had the personnel. At times we weren’t in the same ballpark as more than half the teams in the league, the way we were playing. And then we started figuring it out, and we started playing the way that I knew we could play,” Alzner explained to me. “It just took us longer than it should have. It was frustrating that we lost to the Rangers in a tight game, frustrating the way we lost to the Flyers. So wanting to beat a team like Boston really kind of backs us mentally that we can beat them and that we are doing the right things. That’s what we needed. Like I said, this team, it’s a good team, we’re tough to play against when we’re executing the right things, so it’s just consistent, I guess.”
It certainly has made it a rough ride for a fan base that has known the epitome of sports heartache over the past few seasons. And the end result is far from clear. What exactly are fans supposed to think? Why should this year, despite a new coach and a new system, be any different from the last in its quest to fall short of the Stanley Cup, based on a dismal record? Was my answer the latter two periods of Tuesday’s game?
What I drew from Alzner’s answer to my long-winded question was he doesn’t really view the record as indicative of the team’s performance, just as he didn’t view the 3-0 deficit at the end of the first Tuesday as indicative of horrendous play.
“I didn’t think we deserved to lose all the games that we did lose,” Alzner said. “The way we played tonight, the way we’ve been playing the last six games or so, is the type of team we are. … It seemed like we were a pretty soft team the first couple of weeks, ‘cause we’d get a goal scored against us and it was the end of the world.”
Even now, it’s hard for Alzner to pinpoint the exact reason for the horrendous start. He casually mentioned a mixed bag: everyone trying to impress the new coach, new system, a complete lack of puck luck—and, frankly, too many mind games they forced on themselves.
“We were overthinking the game, we were overplaying the game, and we just kind of forgot how simple it can be if we just go out there and play, so I don’t know what the exact reason was,” Alzner said.
Then comes a game where, down 3-0 at the end of the first, the Capitals engineer a comeback that, frankly, I thought impossible after only 20 minutes were played, based on previous performance. The Bruins do not play boring hockey. They are an imposing presence, and you’re just as likely to see bodies go flying as the puck whenever they take the ice. (“They can get teams to go into a shell sometimes,” Alzner said. “I guess, with the amount of times we’ve played them and the fun that we’ve had, the emotion that’s been in it, it was easy to tap back into that, so I love playing these guy—they’re really hard.”)
Joey Crabb said afterwards that Boston a team that plays their system correctly. But the Capitals proved to themselves Tuesday that they could rise to the occasion, slowly erasing a 3-0 deficit they incurred after the first period to come back in overtime.
Everyone always wants to know what changed to spur such a turnaround, and Tuesday night was no different.
“The fact that everyone’s just sick of being down like that,” Holtby said, after admitting it was hard to figure pinpoint.
“We talked about it after the first period how it was going to take every minute to beat them, and it worked out perfect,” Crabb said. “It’s not like we’re going to get three goals in the first five minutes, you know—we were going to have to chip away throughout the game, and that’s exactly what happened.”
What has not come well for the Capitals this year is making things look easy. For so long, that was part of their identity, and it made them fun to watch. I don’t want to blow things out of proportion here, but I enjoyed the ease of Oleksy’s game in his first NHL start. He gets an assist. He plays correctly in the crease. There weren’t any rookie penalties or game-altering bumbles. He blocked a shot that earned a relatively unprompted shoutout from the goaltender in the postgame conference. I don’t know what his ceiling is, but he plays the right way.
Holtby was an excellent reference for the Oleksy bandwagon, calling him a “goalie’s dream,” and added, “He looked calm out there … a lot calmer than I was in my first NHL game, that’s for sure.”