Capitals show signs of life in tense win over Flyers
Adam Oates tilted his head and pondered the benefits of winning a close game at home. His Capitals had lost six of seven entering Friday night and surrendered third-period leads in the last two. Would he have rather beaten the Flyers 5-0 on Friday night? Or was it good to win "this type of game," the type of game that reminds your squad "how to win the close ones."
"Nope," Oates said. "I'd like a little less stress."
The Caps' 3-2 victory over the road-weary Flyers should temporarily ease the tensions among one of the Eastern Conference's elite, but Oates is going to have to string together a few more wins before relaxing is an option.
"Our staff has our goals," Oates said. "We've been playing a lot better hockey this week, we just need to see where this takes us."
The NHL lockout was cruel to coaches, players, fans and stadium employees, but it seemed especially harsh to Oates. One of four new coaches hired during the offseason, the highly respected NHL veteran was only given six days to work with a new group of players and implement his system. The result was losing six of his first seven games.
Capitals fans are instructed to "rock the red," but owner Ted Leonsis was clearly seeing red earlier in the week when he claimed that star winger Alexander Ovechkin needed to play better. After the Caps blew a second consecutive third-period lead on Thursday night against Toronto, fans were ready to press any nearby red button, be it "panic" or "abort."
That's why Friday's win felt so good.
"This was really big," forward Nicklas Backstrom said. "We had a tough road trip. We played well against Ottawa and Toronto and we had a lead there in the third period --- same thing in Toronto. We really needed this one."
It was hard to blame Oates for feeling stressed after just eight games. Some fans and pundits are already questioning him just 13 days after his debut, and the home fans were clearly displeased when Philadelphia took a 1-0 lead in the second period.
After a decidedly terrible first four games of the season (0-3-1 by a combined score of 17-8), the Caps have made limited progress over the past few contests. Oates declared his team was in a good spot on Friday night, that his players were chatting each other up on the bench and that they were as engaged as they had been in any game this season.
"A really good indicator is listening to the guys talk as the game goes on," Oates said. "We can be quiet because they're talking about what's going on. They're coaching each other and supporting each other."
But Oates still has a great deal of coaching to do before his team makes a run back to the top of the Eastern Conference.
First, Oates still hasn't quite figured out how to get Ovechkin going, and that is hampering the offense as a result. The two-time league MVP has played at both left and right wing this season and with several different line combinations. Ovechkin scored a goal against the Leafs after Leonsis called him out in an interview, and followed it up with aggressive performance Friday night despite not getting on the stat sheet.
"I thought it was the best game he's played this year, quite honestly," said Oates. "He was involved the whole game and I thought he had a lot of opportunities."
Getting Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom will be pivotal to kick-start an offense that sill hasn't scored more than three goals in a game this season. Backstrom scored a sublime backhand to tie the game on Friday, but that was his first goal of the season and it was a one-on-one attempt that resulted from a bad Philadelphia line change.
Backstrom acknowledged that he has had a slow start to the season, but he was relieved that he played a part in the team's second win of the year.
"You have pressure on you and you want to do well out there, you want to help the team get points but it's just harder than it looks," Backstrom said. "You have more pressure to do it right away, it's tougher, but we have to get through it."
The second problem is special teams play. Washington has had trouble staying out of the penalty box, killing penalties and protecting third-period leads. The Caps entered Friday night ranked 23rd on the penalty kill and 18th on the power play. There are worse units in the NHL, but the Capitals surrendered critical power play goals in each of their losses this season.
That segment of the game improved on Friday and looked rather promising. The Caps killed all nine penalties and received an especially sharp night from goalie Braden Holtby.
But the boost the team needs may come from not taking, but holding the third-period lead. The Flyers cut a 3-1 Washington lead to 3-2 with 9:30 remaining in the third period, but the Caps dominated possession and finished off the kind of win that slipped away against Toronto and Ottawa.
"You can't let any bad things creep into your mind," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "You had to make sure that we had to get momentum back on the next shift since that goal took a lot of life out of the crowd. We had to find a way to find momentum and enthusiasm."
The Capitals finally found some of that momentum and enthusiasm on Friday. If they keep that up, perhaps Oates can finally relax a little.