Monday, March 9, 2015
Capitals Primed to Be NHL’s Redemption Tale
If you're looking for a feel-good story as we hit the NHL's stretch run, look no further than the Washington Capitals.
You remember the Caps, right? Just a few years ago, they were the darlings of the NHL. A young team with a rock star attitude and a spotlight-grabbing leader, the Caps represented the best of the post-2004 lockout NHL.
Except for one thing: they couldn't get it done in the playoffs.
Say what you will about the San Jose Sharks over the past decade or so, but that team has at least pushed into the NHL's final four a number of times. The Caps? Despite having loads of talent, getting out of the first round has been a challenge.
Having lost their identity in recent seasons, there was plenty of uncertainty when former Nashville bench boss Barry Trotz took over. But while most people think of Trotz as a defensive grinding coach — the kind of play that Dale Hunter brought to the team in a truncated season — they forget that the Predators saw some time as an uptempo team when they had the personnel for it (Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg, etc.). Trotz's most notable trait, in fact, was not defense but hard work.
And that's the biggest difference in this Caps team — they're hard to play against. Not in a mind-numbing low-scoring way that they displayed under Dale Hunter, but in a way that is built to win playoff games. Finally, Washington is a hard team to play against.
Upfront, though, some things remain. Alex Ovechkin is still a prime candidate for the Rocket Richard trophy, though he's finally added some hustle to his game. Nicklas Backstrom is still one of the top assist players in the league. But while Ovechkin will never be mistaken for a Selke candidate, he’s added some dimension to his game while continuing his lethal offensive play. More importantly, Ovechkin is on the same page as Trotz, which can take them both a long way.
Previous Caps teams had questionable goaltending, and while Braden Holtby has been with the Capitals on two previous playoff years, this is the first year Holtby has looked like a true No. 1. It helps that the Caps added to their blueline with Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. While neither may be worth their actual payday, they addressed a constant deficiency in their overall team defense, and the result is one of the league’s best goals-against averages.
The longtime arguments about the Caps — that Ovechkin is soft, that Trotz can’t win in the playoffs, that the team isn’t built for playoff hockey — are all primed to be myth-busted. However, redemption can only come in the form of playoff wins, so regardless of how well all of this seems to be coming together, none of it matters if Washington loses in the first round again. The difference, though, is that for the first time in years, whoever draws Washington as an opponent knows that they’re getting a tough team to play against.