WASHINGTON — Some teams are born to win. But in their playoff series last year, the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers seemed bored to win. Both sat back. Both blocked shots. Both … uh … (yawn) … zzzzzz.
Had you fallen asleep then and rubbed open your eyes Thursday night, you wouldn’t have believed these were the same two teams and this was playoff hockey. You would have thought you were still dreaming, at least if you were a Capitals fan.
There was speed. There was action. There were scoring chances. And much of it was due to the Capitals’ new system and style under coach Adam Oates. In short, this was not Dale Hunter hockey, and for at least one game, it was as effective as it was entertaining. The Caps won their playoff opener, 3-1, and controlled the play more than their 36-30 shot deficit indicated.
“It looks fun,” said Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner. “It is fun. We’re all having a lot of fun right now.”
We all know the backstory: The Capitals used to have too much fun. They used to play too wide open under Bruce Boudreau, and though they scored a lot of goals and won a lot of games and created a lot of new fans in Washington, they didn’t go far enough in the playoffs.
Boudreau buckled down defensively. The Caps still don’t go far enough in the playoffs, and when they struggled early last season, Boudreau was fired.
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General manager George McPhee turned to Hunter, the former Capitals captain who was running a junior hockey powerhouse in London, Ontario. Hunter simplified the game even more, to be kind. He dumbed down the game, to be harsh.
Hunter took a team with skilled players and made everyone a grinder – from superstar Alex Ovechkin on down. He played for the coin flip. If he had a lead, he would keep Ovechkin on the bench. In one playoff game against the Rangers, he played Ovechkin only 13:36, a career low. His style was hard to play and hard to watch. It did not get the most out of his talent.
That is not to say he didn’t win some of those coin flips or that his philosophy had no value.
The Capitals beat the Boston Bruins, the defending Stanley Cup champions at the time, in a seven-game first-round series. Every game was decided by one goal. Four went to overtime. One of those went to double OT.
Then the Caps lost to the Rangers in a seven-game second-round series. Each of the last six games were decided by one goal. Two went to overtime. One of those went to triple OT.
Dale Hunter hockey got the Capitals within a game of the Eastern Conference final. It also taught the Capitals a lesson.
“There was so much energy, so much excitement, kind of like a gang mentality when we made blocks,” Alzner said. “Guys all jumped in to help each other. When you feel how great that feels, I think you carry that with you no matter what happens. I think all the guys remember the way that we had to sacrifice to have any success last year.”
Hunter went back to junior after the playoffs. McPhee turned to Oates, a former Capitals captain who was an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils. It was like the Capitals had been grounded, and now their parents were loosening the leash again.
Oates taught them the same system and style the Devils used to beat the Rangers in the Eastern Conference final – don’t sit back, pressure the puck, create turnovers, generate offense, sustain pressure.
It required the Capitals to play as five-man units, and that required more time and trust. With only a week of training camp and no preseason games, the Capitals struggled at first, starting 2-8-1. But once they figured it out, they had a better blend. Their best players suddenly were their best players again, from Ovechkin to center Nicklas Backstrom to defenseman Mike Green. They finished the regular season 15-2-2.
“We’ve had two extremes – one really defensive and one really offensive,” Green said. “This is kind of a balance of the both, even keel. You can never guarantee anything. Anything can happen. But we’re really confident with our system.”
[Nick Cotsonika: Alex Ovechkin faces playoff questions despite stellar season]
You could see it Thursday night. The Capitals dominated the first 15 minutes. They had nine shots before the Rangers had one. And though they were far from perfect and caught some breaks as the game went on, there were bits of Boudreau, Hunter and Oates – familiar parts making up a different whole.
They blocked 25 shots. They got 35 saves from their goaltender, Braden Holtby. They got a power-play goal from Ovechkin. They killed a 5-on-3 disadvantage, then got two quick goals – one from a skilled player (Marcus Johansson) set up by a sweet stretch pass by a rookie defenseman (Steve Oleksy), another from a grinder (Jason Chimera).
“I thought we played a pretty solid game for 60 minutes,” Oates said.
Ovechkin played 19:30 of those minutes, including the last two, when the Rangers pulled their goalie and the Capitals were protecting their lead. Asked how it felt to be on the ice and not the bench in that situation, Ovechkin said: “Normal.”
“We were fast out there,” said Capitals forward Troy Brouwer. “We were moving our feet, chipping pucks in deep. We got a lot of turnovers through the neutral zone and were able to counter the other way. Our style through the regular season, we stuck with it tonight.”
It was only one night. It remains to be seen whether the Capitals will break through in the playoffs under Oates and advance past the second round for the first time since they went to the Cup final in 1998, when Oates was a player.
But we know this: It was fun to watch. We’re wide awake, and so are the Capitals.
“Playing defense, I like it a lot,” Alzner said. “It’s fun for me. But it’s better when you’re creating a few more chances, getting an opportunity to throw the puck on the net or stand on the offensive blue line for a bit. That’s a better feeling than it is just to stay in your own zone.”
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