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The Caps Come Out of Hiding

March 12, 2019, 9:06 AM ET [1 Comments]
Jay Greenberg
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Sorry to be two weeks late warning you never to believe what you see in February. Just like Stanley Cup winners going back nine years, we must have been having a bad month.

We pledge to do a lot better in March, just like the teams more likely to go deep into the playoffs. Yes sir, we’re throwing the switch now, the same one veteran hockey players have been telling me forever that no team can do, even as they are doing it.

From 2010 to present every Cup winner but one has had a better record in March then February. We looked it up and threw out records in Aprils, the last week of the season when some teams can afford to rest their better players, skewing indications of playoff readiness. And only the 2011 Bruins, who had the exact same record in February as in March, did not appear to be gearing up for the most important competition to come.

Note to paying customers who think that every team tries its hardest every game, especially in the one for which you bought tickets: Somebody needs to level with you about there being different levels of engagement. Sorry if it turns you off, but good, veteran, teams turn it on. Not so long ago, the defending champion Capitals lost eight-of-nine, bearing no resemblance to the one that has now captured nine of ten.

You may even have missed that eight-of-nine. The Caps were enabled to lose in peace in part by a Lightning team that is almost certain to record the best winning percentage of the salary cap era and is even challenging the marks of the greatest teams of all time. As a result, there’s been less noise by the Capitals to tune out.

The hockey gods paid Washington in full last spring for practically three decades of April tortures. The guys Up There in charge of bad bounces and hot-and-cold- running goalies accepted the sacrifice of Carl Alzner on the alter and, finally proving to have a heart, helped the Caps win with a team not as deep as the President’s Trophy squads of the previous two years. No fair-minded person begrudged Washington that, unless they were more heartless than Bryan Marchment with a stick in his hands and in a bad mood.

So much for the Caps, right? They had their day at last. After Tampa Bay’s rites-of-passage loss to Washington in last spring’s Eastern final, it obviously has become the Lightning’s time now. At 53-13-4 after demolishing presumably contending Toronto Monday night, the Lightning is so loaded that these guys might give it the old Moses Malone fo-fo-fo-fo. Okay, over four rounds, maybe a five in there somewhere, we’ll give you that. But back to the pumpkin can go the defending champs. Redskin mini camps will begin soon. Practically nobody in Washington will even ask what went wrong.

“Oh sure, always love being under that radar,” said T. J. Oshie last week with a smile like he had just scored five goals on five straight shootouts or something impossible like that. “We had a couple seasons . . .well, not at the level the Lightning are at this year. . .but we won two President Trophies and didn’t win the Cup.”

The pressure is off. The crowd isn’t on its feet demanding a curtain call, just filing politely out of the theatre, thanks so much at last for the great show we had begun to think we would never see. Mike Gartner can come back now. All is forgiven. Even the coach moved on, without apparent recrimination, to a team in the same division, no less. Thanks so much Barry Trotz and Godspeed. You delivered, leaving behind a team that could take its time to ease into the 2018-19 season, saving the push until it’s damn well convenient.

Like now.

“I did a considerable amount of research into how teams come back after winning the Stanley Cup and other major sports,” said Caps Coach Todd Reirden. “You never know how [a defending champion] is going to react, so I had a couple plans in place because after a championship it’s a different entity.

“I would say we went though a tough spell prior to the (All-Star) break where we were lacking energy. To answer your question completely as to when I pushed and when I didn’t, there were times and scenarios where I have done both.

“Knowing your players is a benefit from working with the majority of these guys for five years (as a Washington assistant coach) and knowing when they are emotionally engaged or not invested.”

Starting with goaltender Braden Holtby, these guys look better invested now than even Warren Buffett. General Manager Brian McLellan made a couple of smart energy moves at the deadline, adding Carl Hagelin’s speed and Nick Jensen’s grit. It doesn’t have to be a star you bring in, just a different dimension to re-stir the pot while giving a team a couple new teammates who haven’t won yet. Once you have been there and done that, they become two more good reasons to do it again.

You can’t attribute the surge entirely to the additions. Jensen is a third-pair guy added to team that has leaked on the second-pairing most of the season. Hagelin has now played for all 31 clubs in the last 24 months. or so it seems. Teams eventually conclude they can’t afford to play too high in the lineup a guy with hands of stone, but always can find a trading partner for the back-you-off dimension Hagelin brings. We saw him put away a breakaway goal against Winnipeg Sunday night and thought we must have had either the wrong Hagelin or the wrong channel. Yep, we had been surfing for a Lightning game.

Ultimately roster change isn’t as transformative as a veteran team knowing how to win and getting back the feeling at the right time of a too-long season.

The Caps lost a fine coach in Trotz last summer, but nothing much else. Alex Ovechkin is going to score more goals this year than last. Nicklas Backstrom remains one of the most underappreciated stars in the game–by everyone but Ovechkin of course. The Washington defense isn’t real deep, but the other night in Philadelphia all four lines scored and the Caps had the puck for most of the first two periods, their best defense becoming a good offense.

“We’ve done a better job of not giving the opposition easy transition offense,” said Reirden. “We have managed the puck better, not forced it to create more offense.

“And we’ve done a better job of late of handling the puck in the offensive zone so that when (the opposition) gets it they only want to get to the red line so they can make a change.

“Our third and fourth lines have done a really good job on what I would call grind shifts, where we keep them in the zone and now we can bring our top two units. We are not defending as much as we were and we are an extremely difficult matchup team when we do that. It’s one of the benefits of being able to put a player of (Andre) Burakovsky’s skill level down into a spot like where the players he’s playing against enable him to get himself into areas where he can convert.

“We will continue to move things around. But when we start like we did [last week in Philadelphia] there’s no reason to.”

Further shakeups seem unnecessary. A team that knows how to win—still seems odd to refer to the Caps that way after all these years, doesn’t it? –is rolling up its sleeves. A club has to be comfortable in its own skin and the Caps have that look about them now. The wily defending champs against the clearly best team–in a rematch from a year ago no less–would be the best of plots in the East this spring.
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