On the last episode of HBO’s “24/7” series, Capitals GM George McPhee and coach Bruce Boudreau were sitting in McPhee’s office discussing what was then a seven-game losing streak.
“This could be the best thing that ever happened to us,” said McPhee.
It’s starting to look like he may have been right, not just because the Caps are 3-0-1 since losing eight straight – it’s how they’re winning that’s most impressive. They’ve now held opponents to two or less goals in five of six games, a number which reflects a new-found commitment to two-way hockey which has been evident on the ice.
In the six games since losing to the New York Rangers in an infamous 7-0 drumming, they’ve allowed one goal in the third period. They’ve killed 18 of 20 penalties. The Capitals’ “big guns”, which include Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Mike Green have scored just two goals in that time frame but the team has still managed to go 3-1-2. Maybe it’s just a phase. Or maybe the desperation and pain of the eight-game losing streak was the only way to finally get them to play the way they need to in the playoffs.
While the Capitals came out of the gates hot to start the year, bad habits were forming that left them susceptible to a swoon. Michal Neuvirth played out of his mind between the pipes in October. Semin was largely responsible for carrying the offense.
But when both Neuvirth and Semin started slumping and the other stars weren’t scoring, they simply looked like a mediocre team that cared more about running up the score than back checking and helping out on defense.
Lately, they’ve corrected a lot of those mistakes. The forwards are putting back pressure on the puck carriers. They’re blocking shots. They’re protecting leads when they get them.
Basically, the Caps look like a team that now values each goal far more than they once did so they’re not as casual about giving them up.
In that same conversation with McPhee, Boudreau alluded to the fact that, despite losing the previous night 2-1 to Anaheim, the team was finally starting to play the way they need to in order to win in the playoffs. Given the nature of the playoffs, when certain goalies tend to be going through hot stretches and teams can game plan to mitigate the opponents’ snipers, the streak was the ultimate practice session.
During the losing streak, everything went against the Capitals. They ran into hot goaltenders. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green and Semin had the finishing touch of Jeff Schultz. The power play looked lost. And guess what? Some of those things will, at some point, happen in the playoffs if history repeats itself.
Learning to win despite those factors is very hard to do. If the Capitals have forged a new identity through the trials of a losing streak then perhaps McPhee was right.
Now let’s see if they can keep it up.