After yet another humiliating playoff flameout, the go-go Capitals committed themselves to playing gritty, defense-first hockey; more important, the best team in the East got their franchise player to buy into the seismic change
This is an article from the April 25, 2011 issue
With the new-look Capitals, even a superstar's calls sometimes go unanswered. Twice in the overtime period of Washington's playoff opener against the Rangers last week, Alex Ovechkin slapped his stick on the Verizon Center ice, darted to the red line and begged his defensemen to feed him a high-risk, high-reward pass through the neutral zone that might spring him for a breakaway. But the passes never came. Instead Ovechkin's teammates prudently chipped pucks along the boards, safely away from the onrushing New York forecheck. "Yeah, it never hurts to call for 'em," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said later, "but that's not the way now."
The new way for Washington, once the league's flashiest team, calls for patience over impulse. Sure enough, with the minutes ticking down in the extra session and the score tied at 1--1, Capitals forward Jason Arnott intercepted a clearing pass from Rangers defenseman Marc Staal at the right point and fed linemate Alexander Semin, whose one-time slapper from the slot beat goalie Henrik Lundqvist for a 2--1 victory. After splitting the next two games, including a 3--2 loss in New York on Sunday, Washington held a 2--1 series lead thanks to an approach that is nearly unrecognizable for anyone recalling their older brother's Capitals.
With a commitment to defense first, the once high-octane Caps have gone diesel, employing a counterattacking, perhaps counterintuitive, approach that is barely half a season old. "Look, we don't want the creative guys to stop being creative when it's working," says Boudreau, "but these are the playoffs. The number of mistakes that end up in your net is so much higher. When we made this change in midseason, we did so because we knew we'd need the ability to win ugly in the postseason. Our goals these days aren't all works of art."
Witness their first goal in Game 1, a moment made more for mechanics than for maestros. With Washington trailing 1--0 late in the third period, Ovechkin plowed through New York defenseman Dan Girardi and jammed at a free puck in front of Lundqvist. Ovechkin continued to shove and poke until, with Staal draped over his back and four other Rangers within five feet of the crease, the puck squirmed over the goal line between Lundqvist's right skate and the post just before the net dislodged from its moorings. Afterward, both Boudreau and Ovechkin described the score as "a greasy goal." In context, it was a 10-gallon oil spill: the first time the Capitals had scored on the stingy Lundqvist in nine periods, since a 5--3 loss on Nov. 9.
The seeds for Washington's philosophical change were sown in the wasted excesses of the 2009--10 season. Those Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy with 121 points and scorched the league with 313 goals (45 more than anyone else), including 79 on the power play (11 more). Who cared if their offensive abandon occasionally resulted in turnovers and odd-man rushes? They'd get two for your one and thumb their noses at discretion. As Penguins G.M. Ray Shero puts it, they used to score six goals "for sport."
But everything fell apart in the first round of the playoffs, when the Canadiens rallied from a 3--1 series deficit to stun Washington in seven games. Amazingly, the club that had strutted into the postseason with cannons blazing exited with peashooters, scoring just one goal in the last three games—the third straight year the NHL's offensive juggernaut had been eliminated in an early-round seven-game series. "The problem wasn't poor defense," recalls G.M. George McPhee, "it was the fact that when we couldn't score, we had no other way to win. Sometimes you hit a scoring slump, a hot goalie. Good teams survive that. We needed a Plan B."
McPhee and Boudreau stuck with Plan A to open the season, as the run-and-gun Capitals built what McPhee saw as a deceiving 18-6-2 start. "We had a good record," he says, "but we didn't like how we were playing. Too loose. Too many turnovers. We felt that could catch up to us." The reckoning came when Washington dropped its next eight games, laying an egg against the rival Rangers in New York on Dec. 12 in an ugly 7--0 loss. "You can't be too stubborn," says Boudreau. "If you run a restaurant and people don't want to eat your burgers, do you keep trying to sell burgers? Do you give up and close the restaurant? Maybe you need to sell pizza instead."
The adjustment was a departure for Boudreau and Ovechkin, both of whom are preternaturally offensive-minded. Boudreau was once an Ovechkin of junior hockey, scoring 68 goals and amassing 165 points for the Toronto Marlboros in 1974--75. In 2007--08, his first season in D.C., he earned NHL coach of the year honors by allowing his players to run free with their abundant skills—the Capitals went from worst to first in the Southeast Division as Ovechkin led the league with 65 goals. Boudreau's bench style matched his playful personality. He appeared in a series of local commercials that depicted him performing birdcalls and leaving autographed pictures in lieu of tips at restaurants. The spots were not his first acting gigs: During his playing days he landed a nonspeaking role in the raucous 1977 cult comedy Slap Shot. (His apartment received significantly more screen time because the film's producers needed the sloppiest bachelor pad they could find to play the role of Paul Newman's minor league accommodations.) Was he really the kind of coach who could preach defensive rigidity?
"It probably wasn't easy for him," says McPhee. "He was good at coaching another way. But he understood. To change the system in the middle of a season like this is hard. You can't be thinking of what the system is supposed to be when you're trying to make a play; it has to be ingrained. You need a coach who can teach the right way and convince his players that it's the right thing. He pulled it off."
An abrupt philosophical shift rarely works without the support of a team's star players. Under Scotty Bowman, Steve Yzerman underwent a similar transformation with the glitzy Red Wings in the mid-1990s. With a more defensive role in a more structured system, Detroit's captain saw his numbers decline, a situation made infinitely more palatable by the fact that the Wings won three titles in six years. "We scored a lot of goals but had no playoff success," recalls Yzerman, who is now the Lightning's G.M. "So we had to become a tighter defensive team."
Unlike Yzerman, Jaromir Jagr was never on board when coach Kevin Constantine tried to make a similar midseason change in Pittsburgh in 1997--98, the first year after Mario Lemieux's retirement. Jagr's Penguins—who had led the NHL in goals scored the previous two seasons but hadn't advanced to the Stanley Cup finals—won their division as the league's seventh-highest-scoring outfit but lost their first playoff series shortly after Jagr lashed out at his coach, saying, "Constantine has put me through pure hell." Ovechkin might have bristled as well earlier in his career, when he was the league MVP and scoring champ, but he's all in now. "Alex feels some pain from losing," says a team source, who added that the Great 8 feared becoming known as a superb individual player who could not win when it mattered most.
"Not winning here, not winning at the Olympics, that stayed with him," says the source of Ovechkin. "I won't say he was pressing when he felt he had to score for us to win, except maybe he was." From Nov. 30 to Feb. 3 this season, Ovechkin went 41 games without a power-play goal. He suffered such a significant drop in production, with goal (32) and point (85) totals far off his career averages (53.8 and 105.8), that many around the NHL wondered if he had lost a step, perhaps the result of his relentlessly physical style of play. But Ovechkin downplays any wear brought on by his hard-charging approach, saying, "I only care for one number: Stanley Cups, Washington Capitals; let's have one."
Rather than dropping the hammer on his players at the practice after that 7--0 loss in New York, McPhee and Boudreau took out the chessboard. "We expected a real tongue-lashing the next day," says forward Mike Knuble. "Instead they gave us a new way to play." As players recall it, there were no long passes that morning. There were instead safe dump-ins and boring passing options along the wall. There was more cycling in the corners; an emphasis on keeping a forward, usually the center, back, so he did not get trapped deep in the offensive zone, with a similar emphasis on staying behind the play in the neutral zone. Connect-the-dots hockey. Several players insist it was not an all-out trap; the team could still forecheck with two men and didn't always collapse its formation to one side, yet there were stringent rules. "We worked on keeping one guy high in the slot," says defenseman Karl Alzner. "If two guys are down low, the third has to stay high. It's a triangle offense, like basketball, except nobody's telling you to shoot with three seconds left."
Veteran defenseman Scott Hannan saw immediate benefits. "When we have a center high, I can come off the boards and try to keep pucks in," he says. "It's not so much one-on-one hockey but more read-and-react, more guys having each other's backs. You make a turnover, and if you have guys there to support, it doesn't hurt you."
Boudreau's players supported him, despite the occasional grumble, as Washington surrendered just 12 even-strength goals and won five of its next nine games. "One game, one of our skill guys was dumping the puck in, shaking his head skating off the ice," says Knuble. We kind of laughed about it on the bench and told him, 'There, feels good, doesn't it?' He just said, 'Yeah, no mistakes, though, eh?' We wanted to put the onus on other teams to make a great play to get through us. When we struggled, we did a lot of the work for other teams because we made mistakes. Nobody's complaining about the results now."
Washington surged to an 18-4-1 finish and earned the top seed in the East. The Capitals ranked 19th in the league in goals per game, but fourth in goals-against and second in penalty killing. In the first playoff game against New York, they blocked as many shots (32) as they had against the Rangers in four regular-season meetings.
Washington's shutout win last Friday was an even better gauge of how the new Capitals can succeed without leaning on Ovechkin's talents. Of his 10 shot attempts, five missed the net and three were blocked as the Rangers, without the last change, still managed to have their shutdown defensive pair of Staal and Girardi on for much of Ovechkin's 19:51 of ice time. Washington nevertheless struck for goals by Jason Chimera and Arnott two minutes apart in the second period and limited New York to nine shots over the last 40 minutes. In particular, they did a superb job of keeping Marian Gaborik, the Rangers' top sniper, from getting clear angles on 23-year-old goalie Michal Neuvirth. "Our coverage has been excellent," says Arnott, a trade-deadline pickup from the Devils who spent parts of six seasons getting schooled in New Jersey's notorious trap. "If it's three feet here, five feet there, guys are in their spots."
Still, the road to the Cup won't be any smoother than the choppy Madison Square Garden ice, on which New York crept back into the series Sunday afternoon. Washington took eight penalties, including five straight minors, and gave up the game-winner with just 1:39 left in regulation. "You play low-scoring games, you get some coin flips," says Knuble. But the Capitals' defense is playing against an offense with one arm tied behind its back—New York dearly misses No. 2 scorer Ryan Callahan, who is out with a fractured right ankle. Should Washington advance, more dangerous foes await. The big test is still to come.
As the playoff crucible heats up, suddenly a club that has always been slick must prove that it can continue to win by being greasy. But who cares about smudgy fingerprints on a Stanley Cup?