WASHINGTON, D.C. -- No one will argue that the Chicago Blackhawks aren’t one of the best teams in the National Hockey League.
They were Stanley Cup champions in 2010 and 2013. They’ve totaled more than 100 standings points in three of the past four full regular seasons.
They’re talented and deep and a threat to win another Cup this year. Even after Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the Washington Capitals in the Winter Classic, they can brag about a 13-3-1 mark in their past 17 games.
Chicago, as Washington coach Barry Trotz noted, “is the gold standard.”
So what about the Caps? If Chicago’s history, especially recently, is like classic literature, the Caps' is a comic book. No Cups. One appearance in the final. Scant playoff success. And Washington is coming off a season where it missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07.
But in Washington's first year under Trotz, the team's starting to show some positive signs. The Caps have now earned a point in 12 of their past 13 games, and while likely not a Cup contender this season, they are markedly improved.
“We’re not on their level yet,” Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “We’re heading in the right direction. We’ve won some games this year. We’re more conscious of how we want to play, the mentality, the habits. The culture of how we want to do things is headed in the right direction.
“That’s a good sign when you can beat a team like that in a tight game, one where you find a way to win.”
Joel Quenneville, the former Capitals defenseman who now coaches the Blackhawks, has noticed the improvement.
“They’ve got four lines, they can keep the pace of their game and they check pretty hard and pretty well. They look like they have got a good balance,” Quenneville said. “They’re big, they’re quick. The puck seems to go forward for them.”
The new Caps-old Caps difference was clearly illustrated by a stretch from the end of the first period and through much of the second.
Up 2-0 after goals by Eric Fehr and Alex Ovechkin, Washington quickly saw how a team with Chicago’s talent can punish you for the slightest mistake.
Seven seconds -- SEVEN -- into a power play, the Blackhawks got a goal from Patrick Sharp late in the first. Early in the second, a John Carlson turnover led to another quick goal, this one from Brandon Saad.
Though they’d played pretty well for the most part, the Capitals were looking at a tied score that figured to soon get worse when a pair of quick penalties gave Chicago a two-man advantage for 1:31 midway through the second.
Old Washington likely gives up one goal and maybe two. New Washington killed the penalties and kept itself in position for Troy Brouwer to score the winner on a power play with 12.9 seconds left.
“You don’t score on five-on-threes, you generally don’t win and that ended up being the result,” Quenneville said.
Said Caps defenseman Karl Alzner, “We managed to fight it off. Awfully big turning point. Just getting out of the second was huge.”
Owner Ted Leonsis wasn’t about to argue. Perhaps no one in D.C. longs for a Stanley Cup as much as Leonsis, who helped build the Caps back to respectability but was frustrated by the wall that seemed to be keeping them from a higher level. They got good, not great. They’d make the playoffs, while a team like Chicago would make them and be a threat.
After last season’s failure, Leonsis and his staff got rid of longtime general manager George McPhee and second-year coach Adam Oates. They immediately snapped up Trotz, who had been let go by Nashville. They opened up the wallets to sign defensemen Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in, both from the Penguins.
Slowly, the pieces have started to fit.
“In the past, if we have a two-goal lead and we lose it, sometimes we would wilt,” Leonsis told a throng of reporters in the Washington Nationals clubhouse that served as the Caps’ Winter Classic headquarters. “And I didn’t see any of that. I didn’t feel any lack of confidence from anyone on the team. I thought we were the better team today, and we deserved the two points.”
Winning the Winter Classic is a far cry from winning in the playoffs or even making the playoffs. It’s one game, worth merely two points in the standings. Even with their recent success, the Caps have just the sixth-best point total in the Eastern Conference, only four points more than 10th-place Florida. They’re third in the Metropolitan Division (the final guaranteed playoff spot), just a point ahead of the Rangers.
A lot can happen between now and April, but the Caps at least don’t appear to be stuck in the mud anymore. While they’re not shopping for real estate in the Blackhawks’ neighborhood just yet, they can maybe start to think about it.
“We knew we were going to get the best Chicago Blackhawks team on a national stage like this,” said Fehr, whose goal was his third in an outdoor game, making him the league leader in that odd category.
“Playing against them and to match up with them like we did is obviously a confidence builder. We know they’re probably the best team in the league right now and a team that we want to be like.”
Like his team’s owner, Trotz likes what he sees lately. It’s easy to win when everything is working. Quality teams win when things aren’t going so well.
“When we get off what I call the rails a little bit and we lose our focus, we’re able to get back and find ways to win,” Trotz said. “Today was another case in point. [The Caps] the last couple of years have been able to score quite a bit, but haven’t been able to win close games, haven’t been able to win games when the power play hasn’t been clicking.
“So this whole month has been really a test for us, because our power play hasn’t been good, I would say, and we’re finding ways to win.”