Reporting David Elfin
All props to the Caps for rocketing from the East cellar at 2-8-1 to the conference’s fourth-most points with a 27-18-3 record that captured a fifth Southeast Division title in six years and the third seed that goes with it. Their latest quest for the Stanley Cup begins Thursday against the New York Rangers in Game 1 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinals at Verizon Center.
“We didn’t really go about it the way you want to, but we are where we are now and we’re happy about that,” said defenseman Karl Alzner.
Many factors contributed to Washington’s fantastic 25-10-2 mark since that atrocious start, but the biggest were rookie coach Adam Oates, who never lost faith in his system or in his players’ ability to adapt to it, and captain Alex Ovechkin, who shook off two-plus years of relative lethargy to produce a staggering 23 goals and 13 assists during the final 23 games and lead the NHL in goals for the third time in his eight seasons. Linemate Nicklas Backstrom said that the Caps have fed off of Ovechkin’s increasing confidence and energy as he made the switch from left wing to the right side.
“Confidence is always there, but when you score goals, make plays, you have more confidence,” said Ovechkin, who averaged 54 goals during his first five seasons but had scored just 79 in the two-plus seasons since until his explosion during the past six weeks. “[But] it’s not about me. When you have to step up, you step up.”
Oates stepped up from an assistant’s role in New Jersey the past two years – including a conquest of the Rangers in the 2012 conference finals – to the challenge of running his own team for the first time during this lockout-shortened season.
Coach Bruce Boudreau’s full-throttle approach made the Caps fun to watch from 2007-11. The defense-first system of Boudreau’s replacement, Dale Hunter, made Washington a tougher postseason draw last spring as it showed by ousting then-defending Stanley Cup champion Boston before taking the Rangers the distance.
In contrast, Oates has been like Goldilocks’ perfect mattress, not too soft and not too hard. After a rocky transition that followed an incredibly brief training camp, the players came to embrace Oates’ scheme as just right. Green said that everyone in the room has bought into the new coach’s style as was evident by the 11-1-1 rush with which Washington closed the season.
Ovechkin said that there’s another positive about Oates, a quality that neither Boudreau nor Hunter could claim as coaches.
“[It’s] important that we have coach who has been in Stanley Cup final,” Ovechkin said. “He knows how to go there.”
If the Caps are going to go there for the first time since 1998 when Oates and Hunter were still two of their top three centers, they’ll have to start with better performances against the Rangers. New York and Washington split one-goal verdicts this season while the Broadway Blueshirts cruised to a 4-1 triumph on F Street on Mar. 10.
Of course, the Caps and Rangers have played so often in postseason, especially during the Ovechkin era, that this series will tie New York with hated foe Pittsburgh as Washington’s most frequent playoff opponent. Unlike the Penguins, against whom the Caps are 1-7, they’re 4-3 against the Rangers, including series victories in 2009 (after losing the first two games on home ice) and 2011.
The only current Caps who weren’t part of at least one of the three series against the Rangers during the past four years are forwards Martin Erat, Mike Ribeiro and Aaron Volpatti and defensemen Jack Hillen and Steve Olesky. Ovechkin, Backstrom and defensemen John Erskine, Mike Green and Jeff Schultz will be skating in their fourth of these spring showdowns with New York.
“Familiarity might come into play a little bit,” said Green, who led all blue-liners with 12 goals despite missing 13 of 48 games with injuries.
“It’s going to be tough [series, but] it’s going to be fun,” Ovechkin said. “We have different mentality. We have different system this year. We have grown up again.”
If the Caps – who despite plenty of experience figure to dress just six players over 27 (Erat, Erskine, Ribeiro, Jason Chimera, Matt Hendricks and Joel Ward) for the series – are truly grown up, they’ll dispose of the underachieving Rangers as they came oh so close to doing last May.
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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin