ARLINGTON, Va. — Things were looking bleak for the Washington Capitals in early February.
Playing a new system under a rookie head coach, with a shortened training camp and zero exhibition games thanks to the lockout, Alex Ovechkin and Co. won only two of their first 11 games. Somehow, Washington wound up atop the Southeast Division and hosts the New York Rangers on Thursday night to begin an Eastern Conference playoff series.
“When you have a tough start like that, sometimes you need a meeting to talk about it and let everybody speak up,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “That’s what I think was the turning point.”
With the team last in the entire NHL and coming off a listless 5-2 loss at the Pittsburgh Penguins — “a letdown game,” as forward Joel Ward put it — Washington’s players went to their practice facility atop a shopping mall Feb. 8 and, before heading out to the ice, gathered in the locker room to hash things out, no coaches allowed.
“We played terrible. Didn’t have any emotion. It’s one you needed to talk about instantly; can’t let things like that drag on,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We had to get everything out in the open, hear what everybody was feeling, why we thought we weren’t playing with as much intensity as we normally do, and figure it out. Figure it out now.”
Ovechkin, the team’s captain, spoke up, as did forward Troy Brouwer, the only player on the roster who won a Stanley Cup (in 2010, with the Chicago Blackhawks).
Alzner, though, recalled being struck by just how many players — “half the guys on the team; even some of the younger guys” — voiced an opinion.
“A lot of guys weren’t happy. A lot of guys had things to say,” Alzner said. “It was nice to have everybody get their piece out there. And it was nice to listen to what everybody thinks, because everyone sees things differently.”
Said Brouwer: “It doesn’t matter who was talking, the message was the same. We were unhappy with ourselves.”
One specific topic of discussion, according to Ward, was the high number of penalties the Capitals were getting called for at that point in the season.
Through those first 11 games, Washington gave up a league-worst 15 power-play goals.
The consensus also was that it was early enough in the season to make up for the problems they’d been having.
“We just said we had to start fresh and start all over and wipe this part of it out. Let’s start from zero again,” Ward said. “A new season tomorrow.”
Pretty much happened that way, too.
The next day, Washington began a three-game winning streak. In those three victories, the Capitals averaged five goals; they hadn’t scored more than three in any game before that.
Players don’t think it was a coincidence that they went 27-18-3 the rest of the way.
“It’s a lot like, say, a coaching change,” Brouwer said. “The team always comes out real hard afterwards because of the talks that they’ve had and the meetings that they’ve had. Guys just got those emotions out and expressed where we wanted to be and so we saw results right away.”
Now the Capitals face the Rangers in the playoffs for the third season in a row, and fourth time in five seasons.
Like Washington, New York can point to a pivotal moment. Stuck in a 2-3-1 rut as the April 3 trade deadline approached, the Rangers needed a shake-up.
It happened in the final 24 hours of dealing, when prime scorer Marian Gaborik was shipped to Columbus for a package that included forward Derick Brassard and defenseman John Moore. A day earlier, the Rangers acquired rugged forward Ryane Clowe, whose playing status against Washington is uncertain because he was injured in the final week of the regular season.
New York took the ice just hours after the Gaborik deal and beat Pittsburgh 6-1, thanks in part to Clowe’s two goals and Brassard’s four points in their Rangers debuts.
That began a surge for the Rangers, who finished 9-3-1 and clinched a playoff berth in their next-to-last game.
“I think it solidified our team,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said of the deadline dealing. “We have kind of grown since then. We’re not always dead-on in our minutes in the game, but we have still found ways to win hockey games, and that’s what we’re going to have to do in the playoffs.”
He added: “I thought it changed our team a little bit. … And we took off.”
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