On Oct. 5, 2007, the Washington Capitals played their first regular season game with the threesome of Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom all in their lineup. Ovechkin had just turned 22, Green was a week shy of his 22nd birthday and Backstrom was just 19.
The game was played in Atlanta. Glen Hanlon was the Caps’ bench boss. Brent Johnson was in goal. Olie Kolzig, now the Caps’ goalie coach, was Johnson’s backup that night. John Erskine scored, so of course the Capitals won, 3-1.
Washington won its next two games, too, but a 3-14-1 skid followed that swift 3-0 start, resulting in Hanlon’s dismissal.
A lot has happened on the Washington hockey landscape since, and a lot has changed, too.
Ovechkin and Green are heading into their ninth seasons in the league; Backstrom is starting his seventh NHL season. Backstrom will be 26 next month. Ovechkin and Green are both closer to 30 than to 25. Ovechkin and Green are both engaged to be married, and Backstrom and his girlfriend are awaiting the birth of their first child, which could occur at any time now.
Of the 20 players who suited up for the Caps that night nearly six years ago, only five are still on the team: Ovechkin, Green, Backstrom, Erskine and Brooks Laich. Three different coaches have followed Hanlon behind the Washington bench.
The Caps have made the playoffs in each of the six seasons in which Backstrom has been in the league, but many of the exploits of the Caps’ three core players – and the Washington club overall – has been limited to the regular season.
Washington has been bounced three times in the first round and three times in the second. As the years go by and as the midpoints of their respective careers approach, Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green are still seeking the Stanley Cup and a first deep playoff run.
They were kids when they first set out in pursuit of hockey’s holy grail. Can the combination of years of experience, off-ice maturity and repeated postseason heartbreak help them finally achieve that elusive goal?
“I think in my head,” begins Green, “we’ve been a good team for so long. It’s time that we become a great team. We’ve had to learn the hard way. Ovi, myself and Nick were kind of the young guys who were the leaders. We didn’t have anybody to look up to or idolize or to follow. We had to learn the hard way and now we’re at a place now where yeah, we’re a good team but we want to be a great team.
“There’s no reason now why we can’t win a Stanley Cup. It’s almost at the point now where we’re all getting a little bit older and there aren’t many years left. It’s possible we might not be together that much longer. We all have the same common goal right now and we’re all at the same place in our lives and we’re working towards that goal which is the Stanley Cup.”
“We want to play and win, that’s why we play hockey,” says Ovechkin. Our dream is to win the Stanley Cup. Time moves forward pretty quickly. Time is going fast. Right now I am 28 and I was here when I was 19. Everything we have done together as a group, we just take that experience going forward. We are still young. We still have lots of emotions and lots of energy and that’s probably the most important thing for us. We’re hungry for victories.”
“We’re more mature now,” says Backstrom. “When we started, our first year here when we all three were together, I was a teenager. We didn’t think too much; we just went out there and played. We didn’t think too much about what to do. We’ve grown. We’ve had some coaches in the past, there have been some changes in the system and we’ve changed players here and there.
“I feel like now we’ve really got a system that everybody believes in. [Caps head coach] Adam [Oates] and the coaching staff have done great with us, too. We have a great group of guys and we need to keep pushing each other. That’s what I think is the biggest thing. Not just in games but in practice as well, we need to keep pushing each other and make sure we get better every day.”
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
No one knew it at the time, but the seeds of the nucleus of the Ovechkin-Green- Backstrom edition of the Washington Capitals were being sewn here a decade ago this month, and about four years before that October night in Atlanta.
Those seeds were being sewn inadvertently, at least at first.
The Caps entered the 2003-04 season with the 10th highest payroll in the league (the fourth highest among all Eastern Conference teams) at $50, 895,750, and a star-studded lineup that had been bounced in the first round of the playoffs the previous spring after winning the first two games of the series on the road in Tampa Bay.
When training camp got underway under second-year coach Bruce Cassidy in the fall of 2003, it looked like business as usual on the surface. The Caps had a solid veteran team on paper, at least up front and in goal. But discord was rife just beneath the veneer. A lengthy lockout was looming on the horizon, and everyone knew it. Closer to home here in the District, a veteran Caps club had lost whatever faith it once had in Cassidy, and Caps captain Steve Konowalchuk had quietly asked for a trade.
Caps general manager George McPhee has always said that if a player asks to be traded, he will do whatever he can to accommodate him. On Oct. 22, 2003, McPhee moved Konowalchuk and a third-round pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft to the Colorado Avalanche for forward Bates Battaglia and prospect Jonas Johansson, a former first-round pick. The deal came while Washington was in the midst of a six-game road trip and an opening month tailspin that followed a 6-1 opening night win over the Islanders.
By the time the Caps came home from that 13-day trip, they had surrendered four or more goals in five straight games and were buried in the Southeast cellar at 1-7-1. The Caps wouldn’t win consecutive games until Nov. 29-Dec. 2, a pair of victories that pushed their record to 8-15-1-1. Those two wins – in Columbus and on the Island – gave a glimmer of hope at the outset of a five-game road trip, but the team was actually on the rumble strips and headed for the ditch.
New Jersey embarrassed the Caps 3-0 on Dec. 4, outshooting Washington by a whopping 41-9. Lopsided losses in Los Angeles (7-3) and Colorado (4-1) followed, and Cassidy was pink-slipped a day after the Capitals returned from Denver. Assistant coach Glen Hanlon took over the reins, but the Caps were a mess. Their best stretch was a modest 3-0-1-1 run in mid-January, lifting their ledger to a still mediocre 14-26-5-2.
The Konowalchuk deal was the first of eight trades made by McPhee in a span of less than four months. Konowalchuk was followed out of town by Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Robert Lang, Sergei Gonchar, Michael Nylander, Anson Carter and Mike Grier.
Instead of contending for a Southeast Division title and possibly the Stanley Cup, the ’03-04 Caps finished in the Southeast cellar with just 59 points, the team’s lowest full-season total since a 48-point finish in 1977-78. Among the 30 NHL clubs, only Pittsburgh (58) had fewer points that season.
That wasn’t the plan when the season started, but once it became apparent that the ’03-04 bunch would severely underachieve – especially in relation to its payroll – McPhee moved as many attractive assets as he could, and he piled up draft picks and prospects in return, securing the team’s rebuilding blocks.
Days after the conclusion of that dismal ’03-04 season, the Caps got some off-ice puck luck when they won the draft lottery. That fortuitous bounce of the ping-pong ball is what brought Ovechkin into the Washington organization.
Green came to the Caps just a couple of hours after Ovechkin; he was the Caps’ third first-round pick (29th overall) on that June draft day in Carolina in 2004. Backstrom was Washington’s first-round pick (fourth overall) in 2006. Ovechkin announced the Caps’ selection of Backstrom at that 2006 draft in Vancouver; the Russian winger was there to accept the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year for 2005-06.
Ovechkin was 18 when he was drafted. He was weeks past his 20th birthday when he suited up for his first NHL game, a two-goal effort against Columbus on Oct. 5, 2005.
“I’m older, I’m more experienced,” notes the Caps’ captain. “I probably read the game better than I did. I know the situations and position better. And of course life has moved and we are moving as well. We’re growing as persons mostly, and that’s probably the most important thing.”
Ovechkin made a noteworthy splash on his first shift in the NHL, plowing Blue Jackets’ blueliner Radoslav Suchy through a pane of Verizon Center glass. Later that night, he scored his first two NHL goals and the first of 52 he would score as a rookie. It was the start of five straight seasons in which he was named a First Team NHL All-Star; Ovechkin is the only player in the league’s history to achieve that feat.
By contrast, the early days of Green’s NHL career were marked with fits and starts.
The Calgary native played his first NHL game on his 20th birthday – Oct. 12, 2005 – in the same building where he was drafted in Raleigh some 15 months earlier. He played in 92 games for Washington in those first two seasons, but those games were interwoven with eight separate reassignments to AHL Hershey.
Green was a standout with the Bears, and an integral part of Hershey’s 2006 Calder Cup winning team. But Green struggled in the NHL, where Hanlon tried to rein in his young defensive stallion.
“I never understood Glen Hanlon’s mentality or philosophy or his way of coaching, to be honest,” admits Green. “I didn’t understand the criticism or where it came from. And I have no problem with criticism but I didn’t understand why or when and it just caused confusion.
“For myself – and I know a lot of the elite players are the same way – you can criticize, but it’s got to be constructive and it’s got to have a purpose. And there was no purpose behind the criticism. I didn’t feel like I could play the game the way it was supposed to be played and the way that I played it in my years growing up. At the end of the day, I just had no respect for him. And when you don’t have respect for your coach, you’re not going to play for him.”
When Hanlon was dismissed in favor of Bruce Boudreau in Nov. 2007, Green had six goals and 22 points in 113 career NHL games. He scored the first Capitals goal of the Boudreau era and was able to more than double his offensive output under Hanlon in the 61 games that remained that season. Green had 15 goals and 49 points in those final 61 games.
Green reeled off an eight-game goal-scoring streak – a record for NHL blueliners – in 2008-09. His 31 goals that season were the most by an NHL defenseman since 1992-93 and he is now one of only two active NHL blueliners to reach the 70-point plateau, a level Green has achieved twice.
“I think that I’ve always wanted to be that sort of player,” admits Green. “Not necessarily the records or the amount of production that I’ve had, but I can’t take all the credit for it.
“When we were young, Nicky and Ovi – they’re fantastic players – they would feed me the puck because the other team was covering them. And I was just in a good position that I had the confidence to actually jump up into the play and create offense. I didn’t ever think it would turn out the way that it did, but I always strived and wanted to be an elite player – or a good player – in the NHL. I don’t feel like I’m an elite player; I think the way to be an elite player is to win Cups. And I’m not there yet.
He pauses and smiles just a bit.
“When I get that Cup, I’ll self-proclaim myself an elite player.”
Like Ovechkin, Backstrom had a great deal of NHL success from the start. He finished his rookie season with 69 points and was the Calder Trophy runner-up. Backstrom had 88 points as a sophomore, including 66 assists as Ovechkin racked up 56 goals to lead the NHL for a second straight season.
In his third season, Backstrom recorded 101 points. That included 68 assists, the third highest figure ever recorded by a Capital in a single season.
“As a person, nothing really changes,” remarks Backstrom. “The only thing is I can speak better English than I did before. I didn’t know a lot of words and I was kind of listening to everybody else talking. But now I can at least talk a little bit better and have a conversation with all the guys on the team, and understand everything too. That’s the biggest difference as a person. Other than that, I haven’t changed anything as a person. I’m the same guy now as I was when I was little. Hockey player-wise, hopefully I’m a little bit better and stronger now than I was when I first got here.”
Ovechkin, Green and Backstrom played in their first Stanley Cup playoff game together against Philadelphia at Verizon Center on April 11, 2008. It took seven straight victories at the end of the regular season just to get them to the postseason. Trailing 4-2 heading into the third period that night, the kids came up big. Green scored twice to tie it and Ovechkin netted the game-winner to give the Caps a 5-4 win.
Three games later, they trailed 3-1 in the series. Washington rebounded to force a Game 7, only to lose in overtime of the deciding game. Not to worry, though. All three players had a great series, and everyone saw the Caps as a team on the rise. Plenty of time.
In the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Caps needed seven games to dispose of the New York Rangers in the first round. Washington lost the first two games of the set on home ice and had to rebound from a 3-1 series deficit to win. Sergei Fedorov’s goal in Game 7 was the difference maker.
The Caps drew nemesis Pittsburgh in the second round, setting up a series for the ages. Washington won the first two games at Verizon Center, giving the team a five-game winning streak during which it outscored its foes by a combined 18-9. The Capitals still needed 10 wins to get where they wanted to be, and they would get only one. Pittsburgh won the next three games. David Steckel’s overtime goal in Game 6 forced the Caps’ third Game 7 in as many series, but Pittsburgh romped 6-2 at Verizon Center to eliminate the Caps. The Penguins went on to win the Cup that spring.
“All the situations we have been through make us stronger,” notes Ovechkin. “We have been to playoffs six times in a row and every year we get a bad experience. I think back when we lost to Pittsburgh in Game 7, both teams can win the Stanley Cup; us or Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh won.”
The Caps rebounded nicely, putting up the best regular season in franchise history in 2009-10. They rolled up 121 points, won 14 straight games and a Presidents’ Trophy. But more playoff heartache was on the horizon.
A 3-1 series lead over the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens evaporated, with Habs goalie Jaroslav Halak, a crew of shot-blocking Canadiens blueliners and a suddenly impotent Washington power play (1-for-33) responsible for the early and painful ouster.
The 2010-11 season started like the previous ones. A Dec. 1 win at St. Louis left the Caps at 18-6-2 and on pace for another 120-point season. With the Winter Classic a month away and the team suddenly under the harsh glare of the lights of HBO’s brilliant “24/7” series, the Caps inexplicably started to sputter.
Losses began piling up. For the first time, there were whispers about Boudreau’s job security. Despite averaging 38 shots on goal per game, Washington lost eight in a row (0-6-2) and was somehow outscored 27-11 in the process. The power play went 3-for-29. The low point was a 7-0 shellacking at the hands of the Rangers in New York on Dec. 12.
Knuckles were getting white. Teeth were being gnashed. Sleep was being lost.
With a couple of days before the next game (at home vs. Anaheim on Dec. 15), Boudreau opted for a somewhat drastic and – for him – uncharacteristic measure. He implemented a new system in midseason. Some called it a trap; the idea was to tighten up defensively and a side effect was that it shackled the team’s offensive talent.
It was unorthodox. Some thought it was crazy. But it worked. By the end of the month, the Caps had started rolling again.
“We had some meetings,” said veteran right wing Mike Knuble. “Things are said and things are aired out a bit from the coaching staff to the leadership group on our team. It ultimately comes down to the players and being responsible and accountable. They’ve implemented a new system for us and the players have grabbed hold of it. We’ve all accepted it.
“Probably some guys aren’t going to score as many goals as they used to in the past. They’ve got to get over that. Team success is one way to do that. If the team is successful the individual stuff will be forgotten.”
“The neutral zone, we had to change,” explained Boudreau. “I knew that because we based our [previous system] on total quickness. Our gaps were getting too big and consequently teams were able to get through our neutral zone. So we had to really tighten it up.
“The change in our zone coverage has been very gradual. We started bringing the guys back, and then we’ve tweaked the positioning to where it is now where we’re pretty good at it.”
Whether Boudreau was guilty of putting a Volkswagen engine into a Porsche will probably be a subject of debate in these parts for years. It wasn’t a decision that was made lightly, and the loss to Montreal in the 2010 playoffs combined with the onerous losing streak led to the system change.
The Caps took a while to latch onto the new system, but they finished on a strong 16-3-1 run that seemed to poise them for playoff success at last. Washington allowed just 34 goals over those final 20 games. Once a high-octane offensive machine, the Caps were now routinely winning 2-1 hockey games.
Knuble was right, though. The system depressed the numbers of Washington’s best players. Ovechkin dipped from 50 to 32 goals. Backstrom plummeted from 101 to 65 points. Green missed 33 games because of injury, but his nosedive from 76 to just 24 points wasn’t simply because of his health.
Kunble’s last point was: “If the team is successful the individual will be forgotten.” That’s true. But the team success didn’t last long into the playoffs. The Caps got past the Rangers with relative ease in the first round, needing only five games to vanquish the Blueshirts. New York scored just eight goals in the five games.
Alas, a stunning sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning followed. Washington scored only 10 goals in the four losses, and its power play was 2-for-19. For the fourth straight year, a Caps team that seemed – at least on paper – capable of winning it all had fallen short.
When the Caps started the 2011-12 season with seven straight victories, they seemed to be on target for another 100-point campaign. But the ship started leaking in November. Washington was outscored 14-3 in a three-game trip that took it to Nashville, Winnipeg and Toronto. An ugly 5-1 loss at Buffalo left the Caps in a 5-9-1 rut and proved to be Boudreau’s death knell. Almost exactly four years after he took the job, Dale Hunter was brought in to replace him.
Another season, another mid-season system change. This time though, with a new coach. Hard-nosed and defensive minded, Hunter came directly from the junior ranks (the OHL’s London Knights) to the NHL. Hunter knows the game and he knows how to win, but he wasn’t much for communication; that’s the way the coach-player relationship was when he played.
Twenty-one games in, Hunter had the same record as Boudreau had at the time of his dismissal: 12-9-1. But Ovechkin’s numbers were down again. Green was injured again. And Backstrom suffered a midseason concussion that left him on the sidelines for most of the season’s second half.
Hunter eventually got his players to buy into his stifling defensive style, and Washington put on another of its patented late surges. A 13-6-3 finish enabled the Caps to sneak into the postseason as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, setting up a first-round date with the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
This was a different Washington team. Ovechkin was just another guy, one of 18 skaters on the bench. He cracked the 20-minute mark only three times in the seven games against Boston, doing so twice in Washington losses. He scored two goals and registered five points in the seven games, and Hunter frequently pinned his captain to the bench if his team owned a late lead.
Green wasn’t the same player, either. Twice in the seven games, he skated less than 20 minutes. That would have been unheard of under Boudreau. Green had a goal and an assist in the seven games.
Backstrom drew an uncharacteristic one-game NHL suspension for swinging his stick at Boston’s Rich Peverley. He had a goal and four points in six games in the Boston series.
Joel Ward’s Game 7 overtime game-winner propelled the underdog Caps to an unlikely win over the defending champs and a second-round date with the Rangers. The Caps fell in a hard-fought seven-game set, a grueling war of attrition that seemed to more about which team could block the most shots rather than score the most goals.
Washington scored just 13 goals in the seven games against New York. Ovechkin scored three of those while Backstrom and Green had one each. With five straight playoff ousters in the second round or earlier, the trio had become a lightning rod for the global hockey media.
“It’s always hard,” says Backstrom, of the Caps’ playoff fortunes. “But me personally, I don’t listen to much of that. You know it yourself. That’s how it is. We’re the guys Washington invested in and they pay a lot of money to us. Obviously, you want to do good out there in the playoffs. You want to win. But it’s a tough game.
“To be honest with you, I don’t blame the experts for pointing at us. They should. We should be criticized. It’s tough to wait a full season of 82 games before you can try again to do better, but that’s part of the game. The first step is to take your team to the playoffs.”
A NEW BEGINNING
Hunter opted to return to the Knights after his partial season behind the Washington bench. Oates took over in June, 2012, but a four-month NHL lockout shortened the ’12-13 season to 48 games and prohibited the new coach from having any contact with his players.
When the labor strife was finally settled, there was less than a week’s worth of “training camp” and teams like the Caps that had new staffs in place were forced to install new systems on the fly. Faced with the prospect of reinvigorating his best offensive players and injecting some life into their games, Oates had an idea he’d been carrying around in his head since the day he took the job.
Oates approached his captain about shifting from left wing to right wing at the start of his eighth season in the league. Ovechkin tried it, struggled, and asked to be moved back to his customary left wing post. Three games later, and with the team off to a 1-5-1 start, Ovechkin went to Oates and said he’d try the right side again.
Results were slow in coming on the scoresheet, but those who watched the games could see that Ovechkin had the puck more. He was shooting more. It stood to reason that goals would follow. They did, to the tune of a league-leading total of 32, including 22 in his last 20 games.
Having shaken the concussion cobwebs of 2011-12, Backstrom rebounded from a slow start of his own. He finished third in the NHL in assists and returned to his customary point-per-game production level. More importantly, he was once again that cerebral pivot who was routinely one of the best players on the ice, even on the rare nights when his name was not found on the scoresheet.
Although he was sidelined for more than a quarter of the campaign and played in just 35 contests, Green still led all NHL defensemen with 12 goals. Oates appealed to Green’s wounded confidence, and stirred up the dynamic offensive defenseman that had been dormant for a few seasons.
“It was comforting and it gave me the confidence coming into this season,” says Green. “And that’s the thing. The last two seasons before that, I was out and Ovi wasn’t always playing with Nick. We’re a package. And when we’re all out on the ice together and in the same mind frame, we’re a dangerous group of guys out there. And finally last season, Adam had a talk with me after the injury and he said, ‘Listen. You need to prove yourself again. It’s been a while and you need to come back.’
“I took that to heart. I had to work to get back in shape because of the lockout and then I got injured. Before I know it, there are three months wasted and I haven’t played a game. I took it to heart and getting back on the ice with Nick and Ovi and us being able to come together again and have the production that we did was a confidence builder for myself. And not only myself, but I know that their confidence was through the roof too, now that we’re all back.”
Seemingly doomed by a 2-8-1 start to the shortened season, the Caps rallied for a furious 15-2-2 finish and a fifth Southeast Division title in six years. Facing a familiar foe in the first-round – the Rangers – the Caps won the first two games of the series at home.
You know the rest of the story. Rangers in seven. Ovechkin held without a point in last five games. Caps held without a goal in last two games, when they needed just one win to advance to the second round.
“It’s frustrating,” snaps Backstrom, visibly upset at the mere mention of the series. “It’s really frustrating. Especially when I thought we were on fire there. We ended the season so good. We had a 2-0 lead. You shouldn’t lose that. And we played good the third game as well. That one we should have won. It was just small details that were stopping us from winning that game and then it would have been a totally different series.
“I think this team – from the past to right now – I feel like we’re working a little bit better now as a team in the playoffs and the season, but we can still work better. And that’s what I think is the most important in the playoffs. Everyone has to be on the same side and work together and do everything right and eliminate mistakes. The team that eliminates mistakes the most, that’s the team that is going to win.”
HERE WE ARE
The Caps’ 2013-14 season is underway and they’re gunning for a seventh straight playoff berth – and hopefully another kick at the Cup – in the rugged new landscape of the Metropolitan Division. Getting to the playoffs in the NHL is not as easy as many seem to think it is; Washington is one of only five teams to do so six seasons and running. With the dissolution of the frequently mediocre Southeast Division, it figures to be even harder this season.
Washington’s core trio seems cognizant of the sands tumbling down its collective career hourglass. The hope now is that their mid-career maturity and experience combined with the off-ice changes in their lives will help launch them to a seventh successive playoff berth, one that will finally culminate with the ending they’ve all dreamed of.
“I believe that you have to have actual physical ability to win the Stanley Cup,” declares Laich. “You have to have game breakers; guys that can make that incredible shot and guys that can pass, guys that can skate like others can’t. You have to have those physical tools and I believe we have that. But then the other side of it is handling momentum, handling pressure, handling tight hockey games, not making mental mistakes not cutting corners and being disciplined. There are so many other things that come into it and it’s as much a mental battle as it is physical. I think we’re really making strides in that department with our guys.
“In the past we’ve seen mistakes happen here and there and those aren’t physical things; maybe guys weren’t paying attention or they weren’t that disciplined. These are good friends of mine, and now I see what their lives are like now away from the rink. I see the poise and control now that they have over their lives away from the rink and it’s going to translate to the ice. The physical tools are still there and I think our guys are still improving, too. We haven’t gone over the hill yet; we aren’t even close to that point. I think we are just starting to scrape the point where our peak is going to be. I really do believe that this is the group that is ultimately going to win the Stanley Cup.”
Ovechkin, Green and Backstrom need look no further than the men behind them on the Washington bench for proof that a long and prosperous NHL career does not guarantee a Cup.
Oates is a Hockey Hall of Famer who spent 19 years starring in the NHL. Assistant coach Calle Johansson played more than 1,000 games in the NHL and is Washington’s all-time franchise leader in games played with 968. Goaltending coach Olie Kolzig won 301 games as a Caps goaltender, more than twice as many as any other who ever suited up for Washington.
Those three men combined for 53 NHL seasons, and had a total of 39 playoff seasons among them. They had four Cup final appearances – all three played for Washington in the franchise’s lone trip to the final in 1998 against Detroit – and none was ever quite able to claim the chalice.
“Don’t take things for granted,” cautions Kolzig. “We went to the final in ’98. And we lost and it was a heartbreak, but I think all of us deep down thought we were going to get back there. We never got out of the first round again after that. Detroit was a good team. But if I had to do it all over again, I think going into that series against Detroit, I wish we’d had a little more belief that we can beat them and a little more sense of urgency I guess, in that series.
“Time is going to run out quickly. A couple of years ago, they were the up and coming players; they were young. Now they’re basically in the middle of their career and soon it will start trending downward. The window – especially in the salary cap era – is real small.
“We’ve got a good hockey team right now; so do a lot of other teams in our conference and in the league. Do everything; make every day at practice count so that when you’re presented with that situation in May and June you can take advantage of it.”
“It goes by fast,” echoes Johansson. “I know as a young player you really want to succeed. You want to make money; you want to score points. The individual stuff is so important to you, and it should be because that’s how you stay in the league. But there also comes a point where maybe – I say maybe – you have to sacrifice something out of your individual stats or something that you normally would have done for the team to go all the way. I think you see that in a lot of players. When they win the Cup, they might not have done in the playoffs what they usually do in the regular season, if you know what I mean.
“Sacrifice is the wrong word, but you might have to rethink a little bit what you do out there. Once you get on that run and once you get into the playoffs, you’ve got to realize that could be the last time.”
As a corollary to Johansson’s words, the trio also needs to realize that it doesn’t have to carry the weight on its own. It takes a team to get to the playoffs, and it takes a team to win. Ovechkin and his alternate captains need to shoulder their share, but they have to know that foes will be keying on them. Teammates can help pull that rope when the going gets tough.
“I talked to Ovi about this, actually,” says Oates. “There is going to be one series where he gets shut down, but maybe in the other three he lights it up. Very few guys – even the good players – can succeed in all four rounds.”
Longtime Detroit Steve Yzerman didn’t lift the Cup for the first time until he was 32 – at the end of his 14th season – and he ended up winning three of them as a player. It can happen on the back nine, too.
“Yzerman is a good example,” says Oates, a former Red Wings teammate. “A lot of people think it was Scotty Bowman, but I don’t. Steve Yzerman never changed his game in my view. I played with him for four years and they didn’t succeed for a few years after, and then they finally broke the bubble.
“Now I heard that Scotty tried to trade him the whole year that they finally won. Steve Yzerman did not change his game. The team evolved and fought through the adversity and one year it clicked.
“Yzerman is a great example. Because you’ve got to get the owner to not panic and you’ve got to get the GM to not panic and you need them to say, ‘No, the plan is correct.’ That’s why I used Boston as an example at the end of [last] year. Before they won the Cup, [the Bruins] blew a three-game lead to Philly and they lost to Carolina the year before that. They blew a three-game lead, and they didn’t change anything. The next year, they win the Cup. The next year, they lose to the Capitals. Then they’re back in the Cup final and they lost in six. And last summer is the first time they changed the personnel. But before that, the system stayed [the same].”
Before they can even set out to make amends for six springs of postseason anguish, the Caps have a grueling 82-game slate ahead, and each of Ovechkin, Green and Backstrom may also find himself representing his respective country in the Olympics.
“I think what’s happened here is that we set the bar so high when we were younger and we have made the playoffs for six straight years,” says Green. “We’ve been a good team for six years and we’ve made the playoffs, which isn’t easy. People don’t understand that; it’s not easy to make the playoffs first of all, let alone win. We’ve been a good team for a long time now, but it’s time that we be a great team. The only thing that separates first round or second round maybe and being a good team is winning the Stanley Cup. Even if we make the third round, we’re still a good team, we’re not a great team. Not that we need a Stanley Cup to put the critics to sleep, but we really feel that we’ve proven ourselves and now it’s time that we become that elite team and get that recognition that we deserve. The only way to do that is to win a Cup, and that’s our goal now.
“Our goals in the past were to make the playoffs, win a Presidents’ Trophy and I think we were content with that. That’s not the case anymore. We’re making the playoffs and we’re winning the Cup. I think that we’ve elevated our bar even more not only as individuals, but as a team. And that’s our goal now. We proved it last year. There is no falling short of the playoffs. If we are going to give ourselves a chance to be that elite team, we’ve got to make it. It comes down to I don’t know how many games left in the season that we have to win and we win them. We’re there, but we’re just hanging on the edge and we need to get up on that ledge.”
“They came into the league and sort of took the league by storm,” says McPhee. “These kids came out of nowhere. Everybody knew about Alex but had no idea he was going to be that good. And then Backstrom and Green were better than expected. They were young. They had big changes in their life going from where they were to a team that has had a legitimate chance of winning the Cup. And you can’t stop them from being young sometimes. But they’ve all made big commitments in the last few years, not only to this club, but to lifestyle and their families. And we can only hope that that maturity results in a Stanley Cup for these guys and for this city.”
Kolzig is a former Capitals teammate of all three players, and he’s been around them as the team’s associate goalie coach for each of the last two seasons.
“I’ve noticed the maturity level of all three has really increased the last couple of years,” states Kolzig. “The off-ice stuff puts things into perspective; you’re having a baby or you’re getting married. So maybe that pressure they put on themselves the last few years heading into the playoffs might not be there and they can feel a little more free going into the playoffs because there are so many good things happening for them off the ice and the realize it is a game and it’s meant to be fun. So who knows, it could be a real positive effect for them down the road.”
Caps left wing Jason Chimera is suddenly the elder statesman of this team; he’s the only member of the Capitals born in the 1970s (1979). Chimera spent the early part of his career toiling for far less talented teams in Edmonton and Columbus. A married father of two young children, Chimera believes that experience and the off-ice maturity that comes from family life can be an asset.
“I think it absolutely can,” says Chimera. “I think you can become more aware of your surroundings, I think you become aware of how many years you’ve got left and how many years you have to win this thing. I’ve been on some teams where you knew you didn’t have a chance to win it, and with this team I’ve never had that feeling. Every time you go to the Stanley Cup playoffs and don’t win, you’re disappointed because you’ve got the team that can make it all the way. I think they realize that now.
“It takes a while to win. It just doesn’t come overnight. It takes a while. Having kids puts things into perspective and settles you down a little more. I think it’s for them; growing up. Losing in the playoffs really hurts, but you can see it in their eyes that they want it more and more each year. And I try to relate it to them too as I get older. You’re not going to be on teams like this every year. If you don’t take advantage of it, you’re going to look back and regret that. We’ve got to take advantage of what he have here while we have it, for sure.”
For several seasons, the Caps were a sexy media pick to win the Cup every fall. That’s no longer the case; many hockey pundits seem convinced that the 21013-14 won’t even make the playoffs. That feeling has no hold whatsoever within the walls of the Washington locker room.
“I think most guys hear a little bit about it,” admits Backstrom. “I feel like this team, we don’t really need that. We don’t need people saying that we’re the favorites this year. I think we should just be a hard-working team and playing the system well and making sure we win hockey games.
“I don’t mind being underdogs. I don’t mind that. That’s perfect. We can talk to each other in the locker room how we want, and we believe in ourselves in here. That’s what’s most important. There are always going to be people out there saying things. And people have their own opinions as well. Some experts have Detroit, New York, Pittsburgh and some of them like Washington. You can’t really listen to that too much, or at least be taken in.”
If fear is a motivator, the trio of Caps are at the point where yes, they do admit that it scares them to think they could have success in the league for the better part of two decades, but not win what they covet the most, the Stanley Cup.
“It does actually,” admits Backstrom. “When you ask me it scares me, but I’m still young. We are all young here. We still have a chance. The biggest thing I think, when you lose in the first round you’ve got to bounce back better. We have to have a better start and make sure we’re a better team and show everybody that we want this. That’s what I think we need to do right now. Obviously when it comes to the playoffs, it’s tough. But we still have hopefully many years together and we can do something good about that.”
“It does scare me,” echoes Green. “This will be my ninth season and we haven’t won. I know guys that have won two, three Cups already. And our coaches played so long and didn’t win. It does scare me. It’s something that where I am at now mentally in my career, it is more of a driving force to do the right things to win, whether it’s bringing the guys together more or it’s the little things, the details that I feel are going to make the difference.
“It’s not necessarily about me scoring 30 goals or Ovi scoring 50 or whatever. It’s not about that anymore. It’s about the little details of ‘team’ that is going to do it for us, and maybe that’s what we lacked in the past.”
While there is an urgency among the Caps’ core to win and win soon, there is no sense of panic and there is no impending feeling of a window of Cup opportunity that is about to slam shut on the Capitals’ collective fingers.
“I think there’s still a lot of hockey still in front of this group,” says Laich. “I think this group can stick together for a long time. It isn’t just a one- or two-year window in front of us. We’ve got a lot of successful years ahead of us. I believe every year that we are going to win the Stanley Cup. You might call me crazy and say I’m a little south of sanity, but I believe every single year. I see these guys every day. I see what we do. I see how we work, I see the talent and the physical ability, the special people that we have around here and the desire to win. When it comes together, it’s going to be a beautiful, beautiful thing.”
Right wing Troy Brouwer is the only guy in the Washington room who knows that Stanley Cup-winning feeling. He came up through the ranks with the likes of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and the other Hawks who have won two Cup titles in four years now. Brouwer was a member of the 2010 Cup-winning Hawks team.
“I don’t know if there is any epiphany or anything like that that took place [in Chicago],” says Brouwer. “I think guys saw how much fun it was to win and how good it feels when teams win, whether you’re watching them on the ice after the game or seeing them throughout the summer, how the NHL [Network] carries all the “Day With The Cup” stuff and having your friends and family around and everyone support you.
“I think all those things just drive you to want to strive more to win. I know the guys here are extremely disappointed with how the playoffs have gone the last few years. Nobody wants to be on the outside looking in when that trophy is being handed out. It’s not for lack of effort. These guys have been trying real hard. They love this city, they want to win for this city and all the guys in here, that’s their ultimate goal.”
Oates believes in his leadership group of Ovechkin, Green, Backstrom, Laich and Brouwer. They’re the guys who wear the letters, the guys Oates consults with and entrusts to lead the rest of the troops.
“That’s why they’re my captains,” says Oates. “It’s their team. I’ve got faith in you guys; you guys have got to have faith in me. They’re going to get it done. They’re at a more mature level and they obviously feel the pressure from [the media], which is good. We’ve just got to fight through it.”
“I believe we have the horses. We’re the right age. We had growing pains. They had an unlucky series against Montreal where the goalie beat them. A goalie beat us last year. We’re back; we’re the same team. We’re going to fight through it.”
Oates’ faith in his players is returned in their faith in him.
“I haven’t had this good of connection with a coach since back I was a little kid,” says Ovechkin. “Of course when Bruce was here, we had a connection but it is not the same. Because we talked only about hockey; I didn’t talk about my personal life and all that kind of stuff. When I was with Bruce, he gave me the [freedom] almost the same as Oatesy gives me on the ice. I can do whatever and play my game. Of course I have to play the system the way he told me in neutral zone and defensive zone, but in offensive zone I have freedom, the same for Backy and everybody. That has helped me a lot.
“Money is money, but history is history. I want my name on the Stanley Cup. I think everybody in this locker room wants his name on the Stanley Cup. You can ask Brouwer how it feels to hold the Cup and celebrate with the team and the fans and everything like that. It’s the most fun thing ever when you want it, and you win it and you have it.”
Over the last decade, the Caps have stayed the course. They’ve brought in veterans to help nurture their young core along; players like Fedorov, Knuble, Brendan Morrison and Jason Arnott were brought in because of their leadership and because – in most cases – their names were on the Cup. Throughout all the postseason disappointment, ownership has stayed true to McPhee and McPhee has stayed true to his core players.
“I think we handled them the right way,” says McPhee. “We’ve had conversations with them about what it takes to be a great pro: nutrition, exercise, nightlife, preparation, how to play the game. Our whole objective was to not only make them better players but to make them better men. And when you do that, hopefully you have a Cup as a result. And they’re all still here because we believe they’re going to get us there.”
“We brought in the veterans whether it was Fedorov or Arnott or Morrison. They’ve been here, but now these guys are the veterans and they’re homegrown veterans. They are our core. They’ve done a terrific job of helping us turn Washington into a terrific hockey market. There is great interest in this team and it’s been a very good team. But as great as it is here, it can be even greater and they know that. It’s a great place to play. But it would be a phenomenal place to play when they get that Cup.”