(photo by Brian Murphy)
Don’t look now, but the Washington Capitals are officially the NHL’s hottest team.
A team that was all but dead and buried earlier this season has officially gotten it’s act together and is now playing some inspired hockey thanks, largely, to two key individuals — coach Adam Oates and captain Alex Ovechkin.
Since their pitiful 2-8-1 start, the Capitals have gone 18-9-1. Best of all, Washington seems to be peaking at the perfect time — riding a four-game winning streak while going 8-1-1 in their last 10 games — just in time for the postseason.
None of this looked remotely possible during the team’s horrid early-season slump, so what’s changed? First and foremost, the players seem to have embraced Oates’ preferred style of play, which is more defensively responsible than Bruce Boudreau’s gameplan and better suited for this roster than Dale Hunter’s vanilla approach.
Before the season started, I thought this would be a down year for the Capitals because they were breaking in a first-time coach without the benefit of a standard NHL offseason thanks to the lockout. I figured the team would take most (if not all) of the season to learn the ins and outs of Oates’ system and then (hopefully) Washington would be in much better shape next season.
Fortunately for everyone involved though, these players have picked things up much quicker than anyone could have reasonably hoped for and Oates’ system isn’t actually Oates’ system anymore.
“For the last month, we don’t even talk about it,” said Oates, of his system. “It’s just the way we play. It’s not my system or anything -– it’s just the way we play hockey. Guys know it and when we make mistakes, it’s just a team making mistakes. We don’t talk about it like that, every guy knows it. We’re playing hockey.”
When players can simply go out there and play hockey without over-thinking things or second-guessing themselves, it’s only natural that they begin to play with confidence. During Hunter’s tenure, players often had to look over their shoulder — knowing the slightest mistake could earn them an extended ride on the bench.
Oates though, has been less inclined to mess with his players’ minutes and more willing to let his players work through things when everything isn’t going well. Simply put, he’s had their backs and now they’re rewarding the Hall of Famer with the best stretch of hockey D.C. has seen in a while.
And it all starts with Ovechkin.
In two games over the weekend, the Russian Machine lit the lamp early and often — posting five goals in a 48-hour span against the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. But his current hot streak isn’t just a case of feasting on two mediocre Southeast Division opponents. Ovechkin is now tied for the league lead in goals with 25 because he’s abusing any goalie foolish enough to stand in his way.
Since Feb. 23, when Ovechkin recorded his first hat trick of the season in a 5-1 win over New Jersey, the Caps captain has been superhuman.
Before that game,the 27-year-old had just five goals and five assists for 10 points in 16 games. Since then however, The Great 8 has 20 goals and 13 assists for 33 points in his last 23 games.
“It’s trust. That’s what I don’t have last year,” Ovechkin said. “When you have that kind of feelings you just want to go out there, play for your team for your coach and do your best.”
Let’s not forget that this season started on a bit of controversial ground — with Oates asking Ovechkin to abandon his preferred position of left wing to switch over to the right side.
It’s no surprise to anyone who watched Ovechkin over the last two seasons that the captain’s production had dropped off dramatically. Ovechkin took the league by storm when he came into the league, but once defenses adjusted and took away his go-to moves, Ovechkin struggled to adapt and overcome.
By simply switching Ovechkin from the left side to the right, he forced his team’s most important player out of his comfort zone. He shook things up and made him come up with new ways to create offense. And yes, it did take time and even Ovechkin admitted earlier this season that it was more of an adjustment than he thought it’d be, but the team is clearly better off because of it.
And now, Ovechkin is once again playing like one of the league’s elite players — something many critics and skeptics questioned would ever happen again. Obviously Oates took a big risk, confronting his team’s highest-paid player as a first-time coach and essentially saying, “You need to change your game.”
But because Ovechkin was willing to put his ego aside and do what his coach thought was best for the team, the Caps are once again making hockey fun again in our nation’s capital. And here’s the best part — even though Ovechkin has arguably been the NHL’s best player over the last six weeks, the Capitals are still flying under the radar to a certain extent.
People continue to believe Washington is only capable of beating up on their dreadful divisional opponents, and that if the Caps make the playoffs, they’ll be exposed immediately. That’s great. That’s exactly what this team needs.
For years they’ve been unable to live up to the lofty expectations placed upon them. For once, they get to try it from the other side.
I’m not saying this team is a lock to make the Stanley Cup Finals or anything. I just think it’s nice to see everything starting to come together for the Capitals as quickly as it has.
They’re clearly peaking at the perfect time and the future of this franchise doesn’t look so bleak anymore — all because the coach and the captain came together for the good of the team.