Capitals proud of Classic finish

PITTSBURGH – Alex Ovechkin(notes) found owner Ted Leonsis in the dressing room late Saturday night. He gave him a hug. They smiled.

“Good for you, man,” Leonsis said.

Alex Ovechkin didn't score a goal, but he was all smiles as the Caps picked up the important win.
(Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Ovechkin hadn’t recorded a point. He had registered a minus-1 rating. But the Washington Capitals had won 3-1. They had beaten Sidney Crosby(notes) and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Winter Classic, the NHL’s annual outdoor showcase, in front of 68,111 fans at Heinz Field and a U.S. national television audience. They had gone from losing eight straight to winning five of six, all while being tailed by TV cameras.

Technically, this victory meant only two points in the standings. Emotionally, it meant so much more. It was the culmination of a crazy month that the Capitals hope will help prepare them for playoff success.

“This is, like, as close to the Stanley Cup as we’ve gotten,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said.

Rewind four weeks. HBO embedded cameras for its four-part all-access reality series “24/7 Penguins/Capitals: The Road to the NHL Winter Classic.”

It was unnerving enough. The teams felt naked – not just literally, because the cameras were catching the players changing in the dressing room, but figuratively, because the cameras were catching everything else, too.

“The first time, you felt like you were standing in front of a group and stripping down to your underwear,” Capitals forward Mike Knuble(notes) said. “They were filming strategy and the way we talk about the team. … You’re just not used to being exposed like that.”

And for the Capitals, the timing seemed terrible. While Crosby and the Pens were hot, Ovechkin and the Caps were cold.

The first episode seemed to confirm every criticism of the Caps, who won the Presidents’ Trophy last season as the NHL’s top regular-season team, only to lose in the first round of the playoffs. They had skill but lacked defensive discipline and mental toughness – the kind of character you need to win in the playoffs.

Boudreau dropped F-bomb after F-bomb. The Caps lost game after game.

“I’ve owned the team for 12 years, and there were things that I saw watching that I didn’t know about,” Leonsis said. “I didn’t experience a lot of those things. I think you’re seeing this unvarnished, inside view that’s really once-in-a-lifetime. I’m proud of the organization for – good times and bad times – saying, ‘Come on in.’ We didn’t try to hide anything.”

After a series of dramatic dressing-room speeches, the Capitals snapped their losing streak in the second episode. They lost to the Penguins in the third episode, but it was a thrilling 3-2 shootout game. And that only set the stage for the finale.

The Capitals cruised last season. They were so good offensively that they didn’t have to bear down defensively. So when they got to the playoffs, when the going got tough, they didn’t know how to react.

“Last year, we had the wind at our back through the whole regular season and nothing bothered us,” Capitals forward Brooks Laich(notes) said. “This year, it’s been the opposite. The wind’s been in our face.”

The wind literally was in their face Saturday night, along with the rain. The ice was awful most of the game thanks to warm, wet weather that pushed the start time back by seven hours, from 1 p.m. ET to 8 p.m. The Capitals couldn’t rely on their skill. They had to play a simple game – a playoff-style game. This time they seemed prepared.

“We knew the fancy tic-tac-toe stuff wasn’t going to work,” Boudreau said. “So we knew we had to dump it in, and we had to win the game below the circles.”

Mental toughness? After the Penguins took a 1-0 lead – Evgeni Malkin(notes) racing down the right wing and scoring, pumping his fist and jumping into his teammates, making the Pittsburgh fans twirl their Terrible Towels – the Capitals responded with a gritty goal. Knuble jammed in the puck in front.

Defensive discipline? Ovechkin didn’t score – Eric Fehr(notes) netted the next two goals, not the superstar – but he bought into what the Capitals had been preaching: Get the puck deep. Take fewer risks. Play the system. Be smart.

“He wants to do better, and you watch later on in the game, he was doing whatever it took to win as a team,” Boudreau said. “I mean, long ago – and last summer – he said he didn’t care about numbers, what he cares about is winning. I truly believe that, and he’ll be just as happy if he gets 45 goals or 40 goals and he wins something in April, May and June as if he got 70 goals and had any individual award.”

In some ways, in this pseudo-Super Bowl atmosphere, it felt like an ending. The final HBO episode will air at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday, but the narrative was written Saturday night. The way things worked out, the Capitals are glad the cameras recorded everything.

“It was good for our season,” Knuble said. “It was good TV, too.”

Said Leonsis: “It isn’t a made-for-TV drama, but I guess it has a good arc, right? You’re lost, and then you’re found. And so I think the fourth episode will treat us better than the first episode did.”

But the Capitals understand this must be a beginning, the birth of a better team that will win a big game that – technically and emotionally – is worth more than two points in the standings. They don’t want this to be as close as they come to the Stanley Cup.

“We learned last year that points in the regular season don’t matter,” Leonsis said. “It’s what happens when you get to crunch time. There’s so much time left to go.”

Nicholas J. Cotsonika is a hockey writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Nicholas a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Jan 2, 2011