No matter what stage of the season – from the 2-8-1 start to the gradual phases of progress marked by mixed and inconsstent results – one consistent element anchored the Washington Capitals: first-year Coach Adam Oates’s unwavering confidence in this team.
“Quite honestly, I felt and the staff felt that what we were going to change was for the good,” Oates said after the Capitals captured a 5-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets to clinch the Southeast Division and a playoff berth. “We didn’t expect this kind of start. The guys were fantastic about it. No one complained. Nobody pointed fingers. They just kept their heads down and we gradually turned it.
“We saw some signs kind of the first time we went into Ottawa, New Jersey, Toronto. We played good hockey,” Oates continued. “We didn’t get the results we wanted, but I think guys saw signs of it, and you know, gradually it started to turn for us. And we didn’t even change then. We really haven’t changed all year. It’s been a game-by-game approach and we never had to talk about it since then.”
Regardless the ugliness of any individual defeat or the damage caused by any single on-ice mistake, Oates could find the positives and reinforced them. Emphasizing how to take what was done correctly and continue to build off of it, to continue improving is how Oates approached every day.
Before long his attitude was reflected in the mood and view of the players, who have acknowledged that Oates’s continued faith in their ability to succeed and positive reinforcement were critical to their making this run up the Eastern Conference standings.
“Whole coaching staff was positive. It starts with him and it ends with [Brett Leonhardt] Stretch, who’s our video guy,” Alex Ovechkin said. “We see it and we feel it. We never see the panic out there. We never feel that they scream on us or something like we see before. It’s unbelievable when you see his emotion out there and you know his confidence.”
Said Nicklas Backstrom: “I think we believed in ourselves. We talked a lot in the locker room and we kept everything for ourselves. We worked hard every day, then we started winning games and you get confidence. And then we just kept rolling. That’s what it’s all about.”
In the waning moments of Tuesday’s game, on the verge of their sixth straight playoff berth, the Capitals received a prolonged standing ovation from the crowd at Verizon Center making it clear that those on the home bench and behind it are far from the only ones that believe in this team now.
The difference is, the Capitals and their coach didn’t need this 14-2-1 run in the past 17 games to be convinced of it. Led by Oates, they felt this would come to fruition.
“I felt like we were going to come around sooner or later, and it worked out just like we had kind of envisioned,” Matt Hendricks said. “I think it’s that even keel that comes from the coaching staff straight down to our last player. It’s just a good feeling in here. We’re a confident group. We know we can play with anybody.”