WASHINGTON - The turning point for the Washington Capitals came on Sunday, Dec. 12, when they were shut out 7-0 by the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
It was Washington's sixth straight loss. Alex Ovechkin was so frustrated he got into a rare fight in the second period. Coach Bruce Boudreau wrapped up the evening by saying: "I think we have a lot of people feeling sorry for themselves."
Boudreau brought the team home and made a major decision. No longer would the Capitals be the up-and-down, high-scoring team that coasted to the NHL's best regular season record a year ago. The system was going to change. Defensive accountability was the new theme. And this would happen in mid-season—not in training camp—the sports equivalent of tinkering with the car while driving 70 mph down the interstate.
"Sometimes you have to change things on the go when the way you're playing isn't working," right wing Matt Bradley said Tuesday. "It wasn't working for us, so something had to be done. And the coaches did a great job figuring out a new way for us to play. We still have guys who can score, but we've tightened up our defence."
When the Rangers arrive at the Verizon Center on Wednesday night for Game 1 of their Eastern Conference playoff series, they'll face a Capitals team that is less elegant and more workmanlike than the one they routed during the Christmas shopping season. It took a while to get the new style down pat, but Washington won 16 of its last 20 regular season games to again claim the conference's top seed.
"We played them a couple of games when they were struggling a little bit," said New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, whose team won three of four against the Capitals this season. "Now I think they're a better team. They have more confidence and their top players are playing well. It's going to be a lot tougher for us to get the wins, but we're a confident group right now."
New York barely scraped into the playoffs—clinching the No. 8 spot only when the Carolina Hurricanes lost their final game of season—but the Rangers and Capitals are remarkably close in many statistical categories and now play similar close-to-the-vest schemes that should produce mostly tight, low-scoring games.
Given what happened last year, when Washington blew a 3-1 series lead and was eliminated by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, the underdogs don't have to feel like a long shot.
"I feel any team is pretty dangerous in the playoffs," New York left wing Ruslan Fedotenko said. "Here you have one versus eight and other things, but it's a whole new game."
The whole new game the Capitals are playing took a bite out of the offensive numbers, although it must be noted that the goals spigot had already slowed to a trickle before the change was made. Alex Ovechkin finished the season with 32 goals, down from 50 the season prior. Nicklas Backstrom dipped from 33 to 18. Alexander Semin from 40 to 28. Brooks Laich from 25 to 16.
However, the Capitals' penalty kill became gangbusters, rising from 25th in the league last season to No. 2 in 2010-11.
"To be honest, it's probably more difficult for certain guys, and for certain guys it plays a little more into their hands," right wing Mike Knuble said. "Guys who've been good players by their offence and able to score a lot probably had a tougher time than guys who are considered more grind-it types.
"We had plenty of time to work out some of the kinks and get everybody to buy in, so it wasn't like we were in a panic situation trying to save a playoff spot in March. It was good that it was a time of the year when you could really practice it, get better at it, use it in game situations a lot and see the results. I think that's a big thing. The final sell for a lot of guys who maybe have a tough time, or think it's not the fun way to play, is that you have wins and it makes your year a lot better."
Ovechkin, who has two league MVP awards but only one playoff series win in his career, said he had no qualms about the switch.
"If it's good for team, I will do it," Ovechkin said. "And if Bruce tell me 'Do this,' I'm going to do it. He's my coach, and I'm going to listen to him."
Said Boudreau: "Look, every player in the world likes to score goals, but we've gone through that. The best players have scored. The best players on our team have won all kinds of awards and accolades and everything else, and the one thing they haven't won is the big one."
Every Capitals playoff series has gone to seven games since Boudreau became coach in 2007. Washington has won only one, coming from 3-1 down to beat the Rangers two years ago. Regardless of how they play, their legacy won't mean much if they don't finally break through and put together a deep run into the playoffs.
"Sometimes the most exciting part of your life is two months long, and sometimes it's only two weeks long," Boudreau said. "We hope it's longer than it was last year."