Reporting David Elfin
The Caps reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2009 playing former coach Bruce Boudreau’s run-and-gun style. They advanced to the same point last May utilizing the defensive-minded system of Boudreau’s replacement, Dale Hunter.
Seven current Caps played on both of those squads. They’re generally excited about new coach Adam Oates’ scheme, believing that it combines the best of Boudreau’s aggressiveness and Hunter’s patience to produce a superior product, one that will first be on display when the lockout-shortened season opens Saturday at Tampa Bay.
“The system is great,” said captain Alex Ovechkin, who suggested to Oates that he move from left wing to right wing in hopes of regaining the scoring dominance that made him a two-time MVP. ”I’m excited. Everybody involved so you can create. It’s not like [dump] and chase like we played [under Hunter]. I’m excited.”
So is former All-Star defenseman Mike Green, who as healthy as he has been since 2009-10 after missing more than half the games the past two seasons with chronic abdominal and groin injuries finally required sports hernia surgery a year ago Thursday.
“What [Adam] is implementing is exactly what this hockey club needs,” Green said. “It’s gonna balance the two structures we’ve had before. He’s kinda [brought] the whole morale of the team back up.”
The Caps were thrilled with last year’s 10-4-2 stretch run that clinched a fifth straight postseason berth and with their first-round upset of then-defending Stanley Cup champion Boston. However, as Green indicated, there weren’t a lot of tears shed when the taciturn Hunter resigned after the playoffs.
The cerebral Oates isn’t Boudreau, who earned his “Gabby” nickname, but he’s more outgoing that Hunter and was a more creative player.
“We can be a powerful offensive team and still be a tight, suffocating defensive team,” said currently injured forward Brooks Laich. “I don’t think you have to sacrifice one of the other. You can be near the top in goal-scoring, and if we have a good penalty-kill, we can be near the top in goals-against as well. If you can do those two things, you’re a very dangerous team.”
Oddly, three of the four teams that finished in the top 10 in goals and goals against in 2012 didn’t make it as far as Washington. The fourth was eliminated in the same round as the Caps. Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles sparkled defensively but was second-to-last in the NHL in goals.
“I consider it just playing smart hockey,” said Oates, a Hall of Famer who ranks sixth all-time in assists and 16th in points.
“We’ve scouted and played a lot of teams that play a somewhat similar system – New Jersey, Boston, L.A., Nashville,” said winger Matt Hendricks. “We’re going be a skating team within a very defensive structure. It’s an exciting brand of hockey. We’re going to force teams to turn the puck over.”
That’s the plan, but winger Troy Brouwer admitted that the Caps, as one of just four teams with a new coach, are “at a little bit of disadvantage” with only a six-day training camp to learn the new system followed by a playoff-like 48-game schedule, reduced from 82 because of the 113-day lockout. On the other hand, Washington’s playoff hopes are bolstered by the lack of games against Western Conference opponents against whom it was 8-10 last year compared to 34-22-8 against Eastern foes.
Mercurial sniper Alexander Semin and All-Star defenseman Dennis Wideman are gone – essentially replaced by small bur crafty former Dallas center Mike Ribiero and hulking holdover John Erskine, respectively. However, the lineup is basically intact. The players who scored 63 of their 75 postseason points are back as are Braden Holtby, whose 1.95 playoff goals-against average ranked third in the league, and Michael Neuvirth with whom he’ll share goaltending duties.
The transition to Oates’ situation should also be helped by the fact that only two of Washington’s first seven games are against teams that made the playoffs last spring.
“There’s no real time to stumble,” said Brouwer, the only Cap to hoist the Cup, having done so with Chicago in 2010. “If you go on a three- or four-game losing streak out of the gate, that could be the difference between [making] the playoffs [or not]. We gotta make sure that we’re picking up the system and playing well right away.”
That would also be critical for the Caps’ place in Washington’s sporting firmament. Since they last took the ice eight months ago, the Nats roared to baseball’s best record and their first playoff appearance and the Redskins matched that division title, their first since 1999. Nats Park and FedEx Field rocked as never before.
Having put their fans through a third lockout in 18 years, the Caps can ill afford to have them stop rocking the red at Verizon Center because of the first non-playoff season since 2007, back when Ovechkin, Green and Laich were on the rise, not the seven-year veterans they are now.
In short, Ovi and Co. best pick up where they left off in those scintillating postseason series against the Bruins and New York Rangers last spring or else it will be baseball season in D.C. before very long.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin