- THEY SAID ITEdited by Robert W. Creamer | December 20, 1982
- 2011 REGULAR SEASON scheduleWEEK 1August 04, 2011
- If You Do Not Want the Swimsuit IssueJanuary 23, 2012
Unlike Yzerman, Jaromir Jagr was never on board when coach Kevin Constantine tried to make a similar midseason change in Pittsburgh in 1997--98, the first year after Mario Lemieux's retirement. Jagr's Penguins—who had led the NHL in goals scored the previous two seasons but hadn't advanced to the Stanley Cup finals—won their division as the league's seventh-highest-scoring outfit but lost their first playoff series shortly after Jagr lashed out at his coach, saying, "Constantine has put me through pure hell." Ovechkin might have bristled as well earlier in his career, when he was the league MVP and scoring champ, but he's all in now. "Alex feels some pain from losing," says a team source, who added that the Great 8 feared becoming known as a superb individual player who could not win when it mattered most.
"Not winning here, not winning at the Olympics, that stayed with him," says the source of Ovechkin. "I won't say he was pressing when he felt he had to score for us to win, except maybe he was." From Nov. 30 to Feb. 3 this season, Ovechkin went 41 games without a power-play goal. He suffered such a significant drop in production, with goal (32) and point (85) totals far off his career averages (53.8 and 105.8), that many around the NHL wondered if he had lost a step, perhaps the result of his relentlessly physical style of play. But Ovechkin downplays any wear brought on by his hard-charging approach, saying, "I only care for one number: Stanley Cups, Washington Capitals; let's have one."
Rather than dropping the hammer on his players at the practice after that 7--0 loss in New York, McPhee and Boudreau took out the chessboard. "We expected a real tongue-lashing the next day," says forward Mike Knuble. "Instead they gave us a new way to play." As players recall it, there were no long passes that morning. There were instead safe dump-ins and boring passing options along the wall. There was more cycling in the corners; an emphasis on keeping a forward, usually the center, back, so he did not get trapped deep in the offensive zone, with a similar emphasis on staying behind the play in the neutral zone. Connect-the-dots hockey. Several players insist it was not an all-out trap; the team could still forecheck with two men and didn't always collapse its formation to one side, yet there were stringent rules. "We worked on keeping one guy high in the slot," says defenseman Karl Alzner. "If two guys are down low, the third has to stay high. It's a triangle offense, like basketball, except nobody's telling you to shoot with three seconds left."
Veteran defenseman Scott Hannan saw immediate benefits. "When we have a center high, I can come off the boards and try to keep pucks in," he says. "It's not so much one-on-one hockey but more read-and-react, more guys having each other's backs. You make a turnover, and if you have guys there to support, it doesn't hurt you."
Boudreau's players supported him, despite the occasional grumble, as Washington surrendered just 12 even-strength goals and won five of its next nine games. "One game, one of our skill guys was dumping the puck in, shaking his head skating off the ice," says Knuble. We kind of laughed about it on the bench and told him, 'There, feels good, doesn't it?' He just said, 'Yeah, no mistakes, though, eh?' We wanted to put the onus on other teams to make a great play to get through us. When we struggled, we did a lot of the work for other teams because we made mistakes. Nobody's complaining about the results now."
Washington surged to an 18-4-1 finish and earned the top seed in the East. The Capitals ranked 19th in the league in goals per game, but fourth in goals-against and second in penalty killing. In the first playoff game against New York, they blocked as many shots (32) as they had against the Rangers in four regular-season meetings.
Washington's shutout win last Friday was an even better gauge of how the new Capitals can succeed without leaning on Ovechkin's talents. Of his 10 shot attempts, five missed the net and three were blocked as the Rangers, without the last change, still managed to have their shutdown defensive pair of Staal and Girardi on for much of Ovechkin's 19:51 of ice time. Washington nevertheless struck for goals by Jason Chimera and Arnott two minutes apart in the second period and limited New York to nine shots over the last 40 minutes. In particular, they did a superb job of keeping Marian Gaborik, the Rangers' top sniper, from getting clear angles on 23-year-old goalie Michal Neuvirth. "Our coverage has been excellent," says Arnott, a trade-deadline pickup from the Devils who spent parts of six seasons getting schooled in New Jersey's notorious trap. "If it's three feet here, five feet there, guys are in their spots."
Still, the road to the Cup won't be any smoother than the choppy Madison Square Garden ice, on which New York crept back into the series Sunday afternoon. Washington took eight penalties, including five straight minors, and gave up the game-winner with just 1:39 left in regulation. "You play low-scoring games, you get some coin flips," says Knuble. But the Capitals' defense is playing against an offense with one arm tied behind its back—New York dearly misses No. 2 scorer Ryan Callahan, who is out with a fractured right ankle. Should Washington advance, more dangerous foes await. The big test is still to come.
As the playoff crucible heats up, suddenly a club that has always been slick must prove that it can continue to win by being greasy. But who cares about smudgy fingerprints on a Stanley Cup?