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Patience Pays Off for Caps

April 30, 2013

This hasn’t been an easy season for the Washington Capitals, but few things that are worthwhile are easy.


On the morning of Fri. Feb. 8, the Caps didn’t look like a team with any sort of reasonable Stanley Cup playoff hopes. Fresh from a 5-2 loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh the night before, the Caps were a 2-8-1 team at that stage of the campaign, almost a quarter of the way through the truncated 2012-13 season.


That record only told part of the story. The underlying numbers were even worse.


The Caps had scored 25 goals in those 11 games, failing to score more than three times in any of them while allowing three or more goals in nine of the 11. Washington had allowed 41 goals, tied with Buffalo for the most in the NHL. The Capitals’ minus-16 goal differential was easily the worst in the league at the time. With five standings points, the Caps were last in the Eastern Conference, four points behind Buffalo. The Capitals were three points behind a cluster of four teams that had eight points at the bottom of the Western Conference standings at that juncture.


At the request of local media, Caps general manager George McPhee conducted a press conference at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on that Friday morning. Local media is always much more likely to request an audience with the GM when things are going badly than when things are humming along.


Before he started, McPhee was asked how he was doing. “Lovely,” was the reply.


He was then asked to assess where his team was at that standpoint.


“With respect to the way we’re playing and the systems,” started McPhee, “I like the way we’re playing. I think our team has really adjusted to the system pretty quickly. We wanted it right away, but it’s quicker than we were hoping for. The issue with our club right now in my mind is all these penalties we’re taking. It’s too much.


“We’re playing a good game and then we start taking penalties and we take them in bunches. No system, no coach, not team can survive that. We’ve given up the most [power play] goals in the league, for good reason. We’ve taken too many. It’s too hard on the goaltenders and it’s too hard on the team.”


A bit later in the press conference, McPhee was asked whether he believed his team was better than its record.


“I do, yes,” was the reply. “I thought and still believe that this is a solid team, if we can play the way that we can play. We’re just not playing well. I really like the coaches. I love what they’re doing. I really like the way that we’re playing, in terms of our system.


“We don’t spend a lot of time in our own zone, we protect our defensemen, we’re consistently outchancing the other team, we’re getting more attacks than we’ve had. So we’re doing a lot of things well. But penalties and timely saves – goaltenders have to be better – are hurting the club right now. We can talk about goals and offense. We all like to score goals and you always want offense. But if you look at the team that won the Cup last year [Los Angeles], we’ve scored five more goals than they have so far this year. The team that won the Cup the year before, Boston, I think they have one more [goal] than we do.


“It’s how many you’re giving up that matters, and we’ve given up 41. It’s way too much. That’s what’s most important. We’re giving up too many goals and it seems to be related to these penalties we’re taking. It’s too hard on the team and it’s too hard on the goaltending.”


A few things are worth noting here. McPhee praised the system at every turn during this presser, reinforcing what Oates and the players themselves had been telling the media for weeks at that point. No one had any doubts in the system, then or now. And in these few days leading up to the start of the playoffs, plenty of ink and pixels have been expended in praising that system.


McPhee singled out the team’s penalty killing and its goaltending, and rightfully so. Both were struggling at the time, and certainly there is somewhat of a link between the two. Washington straightened out both of those aspects of its game over the final 37 games of the season.


The Caps were a dismal 36-for-51 (70.6%) on the penalty kill after 11 games. They’ve were 91-for-112 (81.3%) in the season’s final 37 games.


In the first 11 games of the season, goaltender Michal Neuvirth was 1-4-1 with a 3.05 GAA and a .889 save pct. Braden Holtby was 1-4 with a 4.72 GAA and an .866 save pct.


Over the season’s final 37 games, Holtby was 22-8-1 with a 2.27 GAA and a .929 save pct. Neuvirth was 3-1-1 with a 2.37 GAA and a .930 save pct.


Once again, the players’ grasping of the system had a great deal to do with the improvement in both goaltenders’ numbers.


Early in the season, a handful of reporters both locally and nationally suggested that Oates would need to give up on the “experiment” of Alex Ovechkin playing right wing and that Oates would need to move him back to his customary left wing position. So a question about the Caps’ captain playing right wing was certainly expected.


What do you think about Alex on the right side?


“I really like it,” said McPhee. “I really like the way Alex has played the last four games. Adam is convinced that he can get him playing the way that Ovi can play and a couple of these games are the best that we’ve seen him in a long time. I thought he was really good last night. He had a lot of scoring chances, he had a lot of touches, he was playing physical.


“In the first period, I think he got three quality scoring chances alone. He’s getting a lot more chances on the right side than the left. He’s a much more effective player. I like it a lot. You might disagree with it, but it looks a lot better to us.”


It took more than a month, but eventually it looked a lot better to the media, too. Some of the same reporters who were vilifying Ovechkin early in the season were making the case for him as a Hart Trophy candidate two months later.


With the players fully indoctrinated in Oates’ new system, the penalty kill and the goaltending much improved, and Ovechkin having his best season since his Ted Lindsay Award season of 2009-10, the Caps are headed into the playoffs on a rolls of 25-10-2 in their last 37 games, 17-4-2 in their last 23 and 11-1-1 in their last 13.


February 8 was a gray and dreary day in the District. It might have looked like Black Friday at the time, but it turned out to be just gray and dreary, and the beginning of the turnaround.