No offense to the current edition of the Washington Capitals, but when it comes to the postseason, the “Rock the Red” era Caps haven’t accomplished anything yet.
Conversely, even though Adam Oates is a first-time coach who has yet to guide a team through a full 82-game season, his system is a proven winner — having helped the New Jersey Devils advance to the Stanley Cup Finals one year ago.
So while Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green are all playoff veterans by this point of their respective careers, things feel different this time around. Under Bruce Boudreau, the Capitals couldn’t be bothered to play defense. During Dale Hunter’s time in charge, Washington could barely generate offense.
Now though, it appears all is right in the universe — as the Capitals play a defensively responsible brand of hockey that directly leads to scoring chances.
Case in point: with the game tied at 1-1 halfway through the contest, defenseman Steve Oleksy gained control of the puck at his own blue line. At the exact moment he lifted his head, forward Marcus Johansson took off for the Rangers’ net.
Oleksy, playing in his first postseason game with the Caps, lofted the puck over all of the the congestion in the neutral zone and dropped it right on the tape on Johansson’s stick. With one quick deke, the speedy Swede was all alone against New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist and buried the puck in the back of the net.
That game-changing goal is what Oates’ system is all about. The Capitals were in position to fend off a New York’s initial attack and before the Rangers even had a chance to try and recover, they were digging the puck out of their own net.
With apologies to Ovechkin’s powerplay goal or Jason Chimera’s insurance tally less than a minute later, Johansson’s breakaway was the defining play of Washington’s 3-1 victory over the Rangers in Game 1.
It also beautifully illustrates why local hockey fans should be encouraged about the future of this franchise.
For starters, it shows Oates has complete faith in his players — even an unheralded 27-year-old defender like Oleksy. Oates also remained loyal to Johansson, who likely would have found himself in the doghouse if Hunter was still in charge due to his slow start in 2013.
Last season, players were routinely jerked around and lines were shuffled with alarming frequency — making it virtually impossible for players to develop any level of chemistry with one another.
But Oates is more content to let his players work through the ups and downs of an NHL season and Johansson was able to turn his season around and end the campaign with 12 points in Washington’s final 14 games.
Rather than giving a guy like Johansson the silent treatment or burying him on the bench, Oates’ preferred method involves working with his players one-on-one to break down game film and show them what they’re doing right and what they could be doing better.
The Hall of Famer knows his players are going to be tough on themselves when goals are hard to come by or they’re trying to work through an early-season slump, so he sees no reason to beat them over the head about it. And that approach is clearly just what the doctor ordered for the ’13 Capitals.
That’s why Ovechkin is so invested in what his first-time coach is selling, he’s hitting the ice in the final minute of regulation to try and block shots. He knows his coach has his back and isn’t going to relegate the captain to the fourth line because he had one bad shift, which is why Ovechkin is willing to take a bullet (or at least sacrifice his body to block a slap shot) for Oates.
It’s also why the Capitals appear to be better prepared to handle adversity — like when they’re dominating the Rangers early with a commanding 11 to 1 advantage in shots, and yet, remain unable to sneak the puck past Lundqvist. Or, more importantly, how they’re able to weather the storm and kill off a 5-on-3 New York powerplay when the outcome of the game was still up for grabs.
Washington’s penalty kill was pitiful for much of the season, but they were clutch when it mattered most in the series opener Thursday night.
“Big kill,” Oates said. “I thought the breakaway that Holts [Caps goalie Braden Holtby] stopped on [Rangers forward Carl] Hagelin was the big one though. Penalties … we killed them well. Every little thing matters.”
Sure, it’s only one game and the Rangers have a chance to tie the series up this weekend, but this was absolutely the best start to the series anyone in the nation’s capital could have dreamed of.
“It’s a momentum thing,” said forward Martin Erat. “The momentum is going to change so many times in a series. But they came up strong and we played 60 minutes of hockey. That’s what we need to do if want to move on.”
Since 2006, teams that have won Game 1 of the first round are an impressive 38-18 (.679). That alone should give Caps fans a reason to smile heading into the weekend. But even if the Capitals had lost the opener, there’s already plenty to be encouraged by.
Holtby once again rose to the occasion in the playoffs. Less-known players like Oleksy and Jack Hillen played with confidence in their own end, as did mainstays like Karl Alzner and John Carlson. The artists formerly know as the “Young Guns” — Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green — each played well on offense. And guys like Erat and Eric Fehr played well on both sides of the rink and in all phases of the game.
In short, this was a total team victory that enabled Washington sent a strong message to the Rangers and the rest of the Eastern Conference that these aren’t your same, old Capitals anymore.
And I, for one, couldn’t be happier.