The Creation of a Culture for Winning

Cup'pa JoeIt’s a queer feeling, moving about Washington in this the season of the calendar of our perpetual discontent, and actually feeling good about the Capitals’ chances. This morning, well post cherry blossoms, I have a startling message to convey: We ought to be optimistic. Not cautiously optimistic, but full-blown optimistic.

There are a handful of key attributes to the very winning Washington Capitals these days, but for me the overarching storyline seems to be that of the Russian Renaissance. Alexander Ovechkin’s metamorphosis, in rather short order, from skunk to savior, trumps all other explanations for a surge that has to have impressed even the brass at the Pentagon. About a month into this abbreviated season Ovechkin was outside the top 50 in league scorers. By the end of April he’d re-earned designation as . . . best hockey player in the world.

I was forced to wonder: Where was this the past three years? Why was it hidden so? If you want you can attach special emphasis to Adam Oates’ position switch, his new scheme, or speculate that long-awaited and much-needed maturation for our captain had at last arrived. I’m inclined more to an explanation that’s part cosmic and spiritual, part primal . . . and hormonal:  Nothing motivates Mars quite like coveted Venus. And that’s not just my opinion.

So the name of our no. 1 shutdown Dman this spring is . . . Cupid.

A week or so ago I was set to write here that the Dynamic Duo of Ovechkin and Mike Green were so game-changing dialed in that it almost didn’t matter who the Capitals faced in round one. I haven’t changed my mind on that; the Dynamic Duo’s numbers the past month or so are ludicrous, outlandish. It’s as if at long last the admonitions related to fleeting opportunity for glory have been taken to heart by both. But in recent days local media to its credit has dialed in on the backdrop for the great turnaround, and honed in on precisely that which has been my bane in following this team for years: The Capitals’ organization badly needed a culture change. The culture actually was of greater importance than George McPhee’s roster tinkering. And in the spring of 2013 it’s arrived.

D.C Hockey’s Holy Trinity of Adam Oates, Olie Kolzig, and Calle Johansson has, in this room, serious street cred, serious crest cred, and most importantly the Midas touch. I remain of the opinion that it was imperative for Dale Hunter to come in last year and quash Animal House and its related unhealthy cliques, but more needed to be done, on and off the ice, and it’s abundantly clear that Oates and his staff have done it. Oates probably won’t win many Jack Adams votes this summer, but he should. Oates has seemingly engineered a system of perfectly blended deft puck distribution, motion and flow, and the proper placement of his elite skill in the spacing needed to exact the most damage. But he’s also managed to save a general manager from himself.

I don’t think we ought to ignore the role that Providence/Divine Puck Fortune has played in the turnaround. When Green and Orlov were out for a wide swath of the season the Capitals received thoroughly unexpected, significant impact minutes from no-names Kundratek, Oleksy, and later on Jack Hillen. None of the three were on anybody’s radar in January. The Capitals still are without a reliable shutdown presence on their blueline, and that ultimately could be their undoing again in spring, but notably they have managed to change the culture on the blueline as well. It’s a blueline that’s notably more mobile. It’s also one that, with John Erskine earning top 4 minutes, has a wee bit more brawn in it. Notably, Jeff Schultz is permanently banished.

No pro sport’s postseason changes in style and substance as much as pro hockey’s does. It’s positively true that the Capitals surged in part due to the division company they kept — no doubt you noticed the bottom three finishers in the East this season were all from the Southeast (and lodged there by a healthy margin). But the Caps won big games on the road in Montreal (one a blowout), and most especially, when their proverbial backs were genuinely against the wall, staring at a back-to-back slate in Winnipeg March 21 and 22, they demonstrated a breathtaking exertion of will imposition, one I haven’t seen in years. It was a big-series mismatch, and the Caps haven’t looked back since. That for me was the turnaround moment, and when you think about it there hasn’t been much in the way of a clunker since.

It’s possible that in the more confined space and whistle-diminished environs of the postseason Ovechkin and Green will revert to more mortal skaters. If that happens, all bets are off, cause this is a hockey club being carried by its big guns, and it’s a hockey club with clear deficiencies. Virtuosity and excellence can’t be sustained forever. But we’ve no reason this morning to think that a largely healthy Capitals club can’t best a still scoring-challenged Rangers club. In the close games of the coming weeks our big stars seem sure to shine. That’ll make the difference. From every angle of consideration it appears that at long last our Big Guns have realized the legacy-urgency of the moment, and they’re embracing it.

Caps in five.

This entry was posted in Adam Oates, Alexander Ovechkin, Dale Hunter, George McPhee, Mike Green, Morning cup-a-joe, New York Rangers, playoff hockey, Steve Oleksy, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Creation of a Culture for Winning

  1. Jon says:

    I hope in these playoffs, the Capitals demonstrate a killer instinct they haven’t in previous postseasons. It’s time to put them away if we have them on the ropes, play a full 60 minutes of hockey–a relentless suffocation of the Rangers. I don’t want to see any tying goals with 7 seconds left at MSG in Game 5. Let’s get that rictus of rage back on John Tortorella’s face

  2. Todd says:

    I think I’m getting whiplash from your changes of opinion on this team.

  3. Bob says:

    Time to come back down to earth.

    In the history of the Caps Franchise:

    % chance of making the playoffs: 62% (24 out of 39)
    % chance of making past round 1: 42% (10 out of 24)
    % chance of making past round 2: 20% (2 out of 10)
    % chance of making past round 3: 50% (1 out of 2)
    # of times of winning SC: 0

    Tampa Bay, Ducks, Carolina, which are all expansion teams, all have one Cup victory, heck the Avalanche have two Cups. What do we have? A pack of Divisional Championship banners that are only good for using as beverage coasters.

    ’tis the season of EPIC choking.

  4. Bob isn’t a romantic!

  5. Mark says:

    Adam Oates, Johansson, and Kolzig definitely deserve a lot of credit for this team’s recent success. But this current team has been built over several years. Boudreau helped nurture a lot of these players, first in Hershey and then in Washington — and he gave them a chance to experience the playoffs in both the AHL and NHL. Hunter instilled a sense of discipline and grittiness that was lacking, and we shouldn’t forget that under his leadership, the team was one game short of reaching the conference finals. Oates seems to have struck a balance — connecting with many key players in a way that Hunter couldn’t and playing to their strengths. Last night, I loved seeing Ovechkin in the game with a minute to play. Oates expects a lot of him, and gives him a chance to succeed and lead, and he’s doing it.

  6. Mark, I agree with every word you wrote, and thank you for sharing in such a thoughtful manner.

  7. Buzzkill Bob says:

    Caps in five?

    Caps do what in five? Is that 5 years until they might have a shot at getting to the second round of the NHL playoffs? Or is the prediction that the Caps might have one cup win in five decades?

    That sure was a balanced playoff team, with all the typical Caps adornements: a 2 game series lead blown – check, a chance to close out in 6 blown – check, a home game 7 blown – check, get blown out in game 7 – check, give that dim bulb Mike Wise more material to write garbage – check, get the Owner to thank Caps fans for a great season in mid May- check. As Ted says, we’re #2 in fan experience.

    At least Toronto has a couple SC wins to point to, and they have potential.
    I thought in 2003 when the team was dismantled in order to rebuild, that the intent was to build the Caps into a SC contenter, not the NHL’s version of a playoff punching bag.

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