Home Stretch: Caps Get a Taste of Playoff-Style Hockey in Thursday’s Loss

It seems odd to lead off talking about a game the Capitals lost on a penalty kill in overtime by praising said penalty kill units.

But if it hadn’t been for some quality shorthanded time by Washington Thursday, a tight contest could have devolved into a serious letdown.

In their 2-1 loss to Ottawa, the Capitals ended up with their biggest total of minor penalties since March 22, and their largest total of penalty minutes overall since February 21, although Thursday’s numbers included a 10-minute misconduct for Jason Chimera.

Still, that’s a tall order for a team ranked 28th in the league in penalty killing, even considering one of the penalties was a matching minor with Ottawa.

But between the bookends of an excellent penalty kill the Capitals sustained in the third period Tuesday—a penalty kill that safeguarded a playoff berth—and the 4-on-3 mishap in overtime Thursday, the Capitals’ unit has looked sharp. The Senators got only 8 shots the entire night on the power play, and the only one that went in was during 4-on-3 in overtime.

Karl Alzner has noticed a shift in shorthanded play as well.

“We put a little more pressure on them,” Alzner said. “We’ve been a little bit better, stronger in the corners, better at making plays to get out of the zone.”

It’s often said that your best penalty killer is your goaltender, and Michal Neuvirth gave new meaning to the old saying Thursday. The stellar play continued not only when the team was shorthanded, but during the entire 60-plus minutes, as he stopped shots with ease and never seemed out of position.

The emotional cards were, so to speak, stacked against the Capitals at the outset. They had ostensibly 120 minutes of hockey left to play in the regular season. Guaranteed a playoff spot, the team was caught, for almost the first time since January, playing a game that didn’t mean anything when it came to admittance into the postseason. It was a recipe for a letdown.

The result was far from as bad as it could have been, but still not good enough for a win.

Though it was minus the atmosphere the building carried Tuesday when the Capitals clinched their spot in the postseason, the game looked, in fact, like classic playoff-style hockey–low scoring, strong goaltending, rising tempers, and defenses that, even when they allowed a veritable volley of shots (cough, Washington), still did a decent job making sure they weren’t quality chances.

“It was much closer, definitely” Alzner said of whether it felt like playoff hockey. “It seems like all their games are kind of like playoff hockey. It’s just their style. They’re battling for their lives there, and we’re battling to try and eliminate somebody, so there’s a lot on the line.”

Alex Ovechkin was the only Capital to score, on a goal that saw him cut from right wing to left across the front of Ottawa’s net and wait just long enough to shoot the puck past Craig Anderson, who made the mistake of committing too far to blocking Ovechkin on the right side.


Posted in Karl Alzner, Washington Capitals | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Closing My Jaw: Capitals Win Southeast

Three gritty goals. One pretty goal. One empty-netter.

It’s a ratio the Capitals will have to remember from here on out, because it’s almost “that” time of year, when making highlight-reel shots usually means you’re on the golf course.

The Capitals aren’t ready for that. Goaltender Braden Holtby was not particularly sharp through 60 minutes Tuesday, but neither was the entire Winnipeg Jets’ roster. Final score? Rookie head coach 1, sophomore head coach 0.

But that win, frankly, has been a long time in the making.

To score in the playoffs, you go to the net. And that’s what Matt Hendricks, Jason Chimera, Mathieu Perreault and company did for three of the Capitals’ goals.

Another Capitals goal came because Winnipeg broke a cardinal rule: do not underestimate Nicklas Backstrom. The Jets played Ovechkin coming down the right wing too strongly, and it left Backstrom right where he needed to be—open by the goal crease.

It was a game where redemption came quickly for Washington. The Backstrom goal came less than a minute after Winnipeg tied it at two. The penalty kill—which was 28th in the league going into the game—wound up with the biggest win of the season so far as they fought off a high-sticking minor taken by Mathieu Perreault late in the third in what was, before Ovechkin’s eventual empty-netter, a one-goal game.

John Erskine, meanwhile, brought out his best Superman impression. At one point in the first, a Mike Ribeiro stumble gave Winnipeg an excellent look at the net and delivered shot on goal that Holtby regurgitated for a juicy rebound, then went out so far that the space in front of the Capitals’ net yawned. That set Winnipeg up with an almost sure-fire goal until Erskine dove across the opening to block the puck.

Meanwhile, every Capital had a shot on goal except for Marcus Johansson, who nevertheless got an assist.

It all boiled down to a 5-3 win, a division title, and a very happy Verizon Center crowd.

For those of you who were waiting for me to eat the verbal equivalent of a five-course meal since the Capitals made the playoffs, I’ve eaten it.  I’m not ashamed of what I wrote then, either. Frankly, I don’t think any guy in the locker room would say I was unfair or inaccurate or didn’t give as complete a picture as they allowed us to see. It was sound analysis based on how the Capitals were playing and what I gleaned from reporting—and I will remind you that, through March, things looked extremely bleak. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone mention a “must-win” game that month, I could have bought out Ovechkin’s contract.

And because I am conscientious about my reporting, I’ve done my hardest to figure out what I missed this time around. I do think the nucleus was what I wrote about last time on Oates’ “be professional” philosophy, because that helped change the culture and tenure of games. I think the Capitals got a lot of help from some Southeast peers.  I think Oates’ system covers a multitude of sins. I think next time I’ll listen more carefully to Oates when he says his guys are playing well—even if the results don’t show up for longer than it takes Justin Bieber to grow a beard. And it remains to be seen if the roster as currently assembled can take the Capitals any deeper than in recent history.

But I think, in the end, each person on the Capitals’ bench decided to start holding himself accountable, if he hadn’t already. And those different personal epiphanies is something you’ll almost never be able to predict fully on a roster-sized basis.

Posted in 2 Points, Adam Oates | 2 Comments

Best Hockey Night in Canada Open. Ever.

Fine work on the open by Tim Thompson (@b0undless).

Posted in Hockey Night in Canada, Rush, The Holy Triumvirate, Video Clips | 6 Comments

Adam Oates’ Winning Coaching Philosophy: Be Professional

There are many ways we categorize coaches in the NHL: players’ coach, offensive-minded coach, defensive-minded coach—there’s a label for every situation. When a new guy steps into the head coaching position, he’s peppered with questions about his system, players’ positioning on the ice is put under a microscope, and media and fans become accustomed to his quirks and sayings.

But in the blizzard of new information, it can take awhile to find most vital ingredient.

Adam Oates’ team this year has been confusing.  The growing pains were the type only a mother could love.  The team had effort issues, system issues, personnel issues—things that can’t always be fixed in a season.  It wasn’t just one problem.  It was a veteran roster that had fewer answers than a freshman in calculus. And there was no silver bullet.

So when the Capitals began to turn things around, when the superstars began playing like fans hadn’t seen in a couple years, and when the team jumped to Nicklas Backstrom’s defense Tuesday in a way that would have made the toughest roster in the NHL proud, it was more inexplicable than if Arron Asham joined the Peace Corps. The roster remained roughly the same, but suddenly the system and the attitude were working in harmony.

It finally clicked for me after listening to Oates’ press conference Tuesday, his team fresh off its eighth straight win: a commanding 5-1 triumph over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“One of the things we talk about is that I expect those guys to be pros,” Oates said. “You can enjoy it tonight for sure, it was a good game. Tomorrow we focus on Ottawa. Just like when it doesn’t go our way, I don’t want it to linger, we treat that as [professionals].”

This isn’t the first time Oates has mentioned professionalism.  Like Dale Hunter’s “it’s a hockey play,” the phrase is a staple of Oates’ coaching. But it was the first time I realized how much of an impact it’s having on the Capitals’ success, as they finally start to absorb and live the attitude like their muscle memory absorbs the system and positioning on the ice.

It seems like such a simple thing. Guys should be professional in the NHL without having to be told, right? They’re adults with full-time jobs getting paid a lot of money to show up and play.

Perhaps they shouldn’t have to be told, but if you think about the person at your workpalce who breaks every rule, or who shows up in a dress code fit for anything but an office, all without repercussions, then you begin to realize it’s not such a radical concept for a hockey club, either, that professionalism is sometimes lacking.

The advantage of this professionalism for on-ice play is the kind that Dean Evason once observed about Nicklas Backstrom as an NHL center—you don’t get too thrown off your game by the highs and lows of the 60-minute drama. When you’re the calm in the storm, you’re usually the most focused part in the storm, too.  So when your team blows a 4-goal lead like the Capitals did in their home game Saturday, you don’t sink so low that you can’t concentrate on a comeback.

We talk a lot about culture in a hockey locker room. The Capitals have needed a change for some time.  And, frankly, I think the professionalism mantra of Oates has worked wonders for this organization. Almost exactly one month ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins were in the middle of a 15-game winning streak. At that time in Washington, winning streaks of more than three or four games seemed the things that fairy tales were made of.

The Capitals couldn’t string a streak like that together anymore in the regular season, since there aren’t enough games left, but their win Tuesday was decisive, even if it wasn’t a perfect performance.  While the initial 10 minutes were a good reminder that they weren’t playing a Southeast Division rival, the game was also an interesting measuring stick of the Caps’ quality of play when facing one of the East’s better teams. And by the middle of the second period, it really didn’t matter, because the score was 4-0 in the Capitals’ favor, and they never looked back, finishing the game with 5 goals to the Leafs’ 1.

This isn’t to say the team will never again look sloppy or like they don’t care sometimes. Old habits are hard to break. But it seems that Oates’ demand for professionalism is winning more often than it’s losing in the locker room.

Posted in 2 Points, Adam Oates, Washington Capitals | Tagged , | 10 Comments

On Moneyball Moves, and a One of a Kind Motivation

Cup'pa JoeI am just returned from Pittsburgh, where Dad and I took in a most memorable Frozen Four. You know how a 16 seed has never knocked off a no. 1 seed in NCAA hoops? Well, it just happened in college hockey. The Yale Bulldogs, having fielded teams in men’s college hockey since the late 19th century without ever winning much of anything, won their first-ever national championship — of any kind — over the weekend in Pittsburgh. The Bulldogs were not only the very last team to qualify for college hockey’s single elimination postseason this spring, they most assuredly weren’t one of the best sixteen Division I teams based on regular season achievement. Incidentally, Yale is coached by Keith Allain, who served as an assistant with the Capitals from 1993-97.

As an Ivy League institution Yale competes in D-I competition — most particularly in hockey — on a very uneven slate of playing fields: the Ivies don’t award athletic scholarships. Some of the Bulldogs’ competitors this hockey season had 18 skaters on scholarship.

Something very special happened to Yale hockey this spring, right in the nick of time. Barry Melrose has suggested it was simply a case of a team inexplicably gelling and getting hot right when it had to. Yale defeated cross-state rival Quinnipiac in the title game this past Saturday night, in the fourth meeting between the clubs this college hockey season. Quinnipiac, which won 21 consecutive games at one point this college hockey season and spent a fair portion of it ranked no. 1,  won the first three meetings of the season between the teams, and rather decisively: 6-2, 4-1, and 3-0. Yale actually scored the first two goals between the teams and then watched the Bobcats score 15 of the next 16 goals. Saturday night’s championship tally? 4-0 Yale, naturally.

I was engrossed watching Allain’s guys skate in Pittsburgh. They’re without elite, difference-making talent. In Jeff Malcolm they had a senior netminder likely headed only for beer league action after this spring’s fun run. But the Bulldogs had terrific quickness, guts, and guile, and they executed Allain’s blueprint for success with lethal determination and efficiency. They possessed and passed the puck brilliantly, and their puck support — especially laterally entering the offensive zone — was a thing of beauty to behold. Dad and I felt lucky to witness them in action in person.

Dad has a Capitals app on his new smartphone, and he was keeping abreast of the action on the ice back in D.C. while we were seated in Consol Energy Center. As he relayed updates to me I couldn’t help but draw a comparison between the Bulldogs and the Caps. Neither was much of a postseason candidate a month ago, and like Yale, if the Caps do qualify this week or next, they won’t much be on anyone’s contender’s list. And like Yale that may just not matter. Though we don’t much know about it in these parts — particularly in spring — winning can become infectious.

It doesn’t happen all that often in sports, but occasionally teams simply gel beyond their means, arrive at a sum-better-than-its-parts cohesion and confidence, and simply beat everyone in their path, night after night. That’s precisely what Yale did. In ECAC conference postseason play Yale actually didn’t score even a single goal, losing to Union 5-0 and to Quinnipiac 3-0 in the third week of March. Then came single elimination postseason play and everything changed: Down went Minnesota, down went North Dakota, down went another no. 1, UMass-Lowell. And what manner of confidence could the Bulldogs have had going into Saturday night’s championship tilt, having been smoked by Quinnipiac in all three meetings this season? But the Bulldogs of January or February weren’t the Bulldogs of April. In my hotel room Saturday morning I caught Melrose on TV for an ESPN puck preview segment, and he well warned: It’s tough to take down a hot hockey club four straight times in a season.

There’s a bit of a ‘Moneyball’ quality, too, to these Caps, I think. If you watched the Brad Pitt movie chronicle of the 2002 Oakland Athletics you’ll recall how that rag-tag club inexplicably won a record 20 consecutive games between August and September of that year. These Capitals have a couple of rich superstar talents that those A’s didn’t, but like the A’s they’re rife with roster flaws, and now like Oakland and Yale all they’re doing is winning every night. Steve Oleksy is a Moneyball kind of impact player for me. So, too, is Mike Ribeiro — a veteran hired hand of achievement who’s doing his job precisely as his hiring manager envisioned. In Moneyball your best players have to be your best players, unheralded hires have to overachieve, your clubhouse has to gel, and you have to get a little lucky here and there. Sounds a lot like the Caps of spring 2013.

But Moneyball lacked a compelling love storyline, perhaps explaining why guys seemed to like it a heck of a lot more than girls.

I’ve an office colleague with a notable background in competitive tennis,  and he was working out at his racket club in McLean last Friday when a young woman of inordinate beauty and fitness lodged herself on the stationary bike next to him. My co-worker got excited because he’s a big Maria Kirilenko fan. He’d noticed her pointed out in the stands, seated among the Ovechkin clan, on a number of Capitals’ television broadcasts of late. With the tennis calendar being what it is Kirilenko’s hanging around town a lot, and it’d be easy to surmise having a somewhat inspiring effect on the hockey player who adores her. When I played merely late-night beer league hockey and had my girl in the stands I always wanted to score two goals, assist on at least one other, and perpetrate a notable act of unsanctioned ferocity for her. Knowing my thoughts related to hockey’s being perpetually cursed here, you can well imagine how I might welcome love’s inspiration — along with Moneyball luck and a roster’s unlikely confluence of confidence and congealing — this spring.

Posted in Alexander Ovechkin, Baseball, College Hockey, Frozen Four, Maria Kirilenko, Morning cup-a-joe, Other sports, Steve Oleksy, Washington Capitals | Leave a comment

A Praiseworthy Triumvirate

What looked like a cool-headed decision by Matt Hendricks in the first period might well have been the reason the Capitals eked out their seventh straight win Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Late in the first period, Tampa’s B.J. Crombeen appeared to take issue with a hit Hendricks laid on a Tampa player, but Hendricks seemingly refused to engage. Seconds later, the puck had already made it to the other end of the ice, where Jack Hillen gave Washington a two-goal lead.

It’s likely that, had Hendricks dropped the gloves, the Capitals would have lost the momentum and positioning that led to Hillen’s goal. And Washington would need every one of those goals by the end of the game, after Tampa erased a four-goal deficit to send the game into overtime.

During the scoreboard roller coaster, no one was more in tune with his linemates last night than Mathieu Perreault, who had perfectly placed assists on goals by Eric Fehr and Jason Chimera. On the Chimera goal, Perreault could have passed for James Bond on ice, the puck traveling from Chimera to Perreault and back seamlessly as the two bore down on Tampa goalie Mathieu Garon(starting goalie Ben Bishop was pulled at the beginning of the second). Keeping up with Chimera’s speed enough to be in the play requires hustle, and Perreault proved up to the challenge. He showed an uncanny sense of where his teammates were going to be, and the Capitals were two goals the better for it.

Other bright sides for the Capitals weren’t perhaps as pretty.  Steve Oleksy took a high stick to the face, but, in typical hockey fashion, came back into the game after getting stitched up. He finished the game with two assists and was on the ice for only one of Tampa’s goals against, no mean feat when the end score is 6-5.

Oleksy estimates he’s probably gotten stitches about 20 times in his hockey career, with 13 or 14 of those coming in the past two years.

“A lot of people don’t even recognize me without stitches somewhere, or a black eye,” he said after the game.

With something like a hard high stick to the face, Oleksy says, the challenge to playing on isn’t as much about pain as it is being shaken up and feeling slightly out of it.  So he said he tried to keep it simple for the rest of the game.

Despite a productive offense, which saw a goal by Ovechkin and the game winner by Green, the game was not one the Capitals are likely to consider their finest of the season, thanks to blowing that four-goal lead.  But it was an excellent reminder of how much fun this team is to watch when the offense hits its stride. It was also a great reminder of how often this team lets its opponents back into the game.

But for now, the Capitals have once again made the turnaround from one of the worst teams in the NHL to sitting atop their division.

Posted in 2 Points, Mathieu Perreault, Matt Hendricks, Steve Oleksy | 2 Comments

Becoming Brothers

Calming, focusing, not panicking.

That’s what it’s like in the Capitals’ locker room, according to goaltender Braden Holtby, in situations such as the first intermission Thursday, when the team was down 1-0 and had clawed its way back from a 14-0 shot deficit to start the game.

“The dressing room’s personality is almost like a person’s,” Holtby said. “It’s hard to explain, because you can tell if a group is confident or not just by listening to a dressing room. It’s not one guy or two guys. It’s just the mood in the dressing room and how it makes you feel. And right now, it’s really good.”

The team came back Thursday to beat the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1, Holtby conquered a shaky first period to earn first star of the game honors, and the Capitals extended their winning streak to six, which once seemed a taller order than the team’s roster could fill.

Troy Brouwer thinks the adversity the Capitals went through this year strengthened the team’s relationships, and adds the guys hang out often away from the rink.

“It goes along with trust,” Brouwer said of the advantage that off-ice camaraderie has to on-ice production. “And when you’re friends with someone, and you trust them off the ice, you’re going to trust them on the ice.”

Mike Green says the locker room now is just as close, if not closer, than during the team’s incredible playoff push in 2008.

It was Green, in fact, who gave the Capitals their second goal Thursday, with a well-aimed shot after getting the puck from Jay Beagle.

But maybe Matt Hendricks’ answer, when asked about the difficulty of the shot, is indicative of how close this team really is:

“Greenie gets a lot of goals. I’m gonna give all the compliments to my linemates, Wolski and Beagle. Wolski made a great chip for Jay, Jay was able to keep his speed going to the corner and get it. I think everybody thought he was going to pass it to Alzner coming down the slot, and he made the other choice and went far side to Green. As a defender, it’s hard to get back in your position. And, big Number 8 [Ovechkin] standing in front of the goalie, it’s hard to see.”

The team also appeared much more physical in the second, leapfrogging Carolina with the number of hits recorded on the stats sheet, though the two finished the game virtually tied in that statistic. Brouwer had 5 total hits, which meant he led the team in both goals and hits Thursday.

His two goals bookended the one by Green in the second period. Brouwer’s first was on the power play, and the latter was an empty-netter which allowed the Capitals to breathe in the final seconds of the game.

It looks like the Capitals are trying to prove the old adage: it’s not how you start, but how you finish.

Posted in 2 Points | 1 Comment