NEW YORK — After ending the season on a 15-2-2 run and winning the first two games of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers, the Washington Capitals played one of their sloppiest games in recent memory Monday night in a 4-3 loss in Game 3. So Adam Oates did what any hard-boiled NHL coach would do: He gave them a day off.
That wouldn’t have been the reaction of a Caps coach as recently as a year ago, but Oates has been able to think like both a player and a coach for much of this season. He gauges when the team needs an optional skate, or a day off, like a player, but when he installed his new system and the season got off to a dreadful start, he was all coach, withstanding the pressure of not only losing but playing poorly and losing, until his system started to click.
So what made Oates cancel Tuesday morning’s scheduled practice at the Prudential Center in Newark and instead give an alfresco news conference Tuesday morning outside the Caps’ team hotel?
“We didn’t get back to the hotel till 1 in the morning,” he said. “Guys are banged up. . . . At this point of the season, I’m not worried about conditioning. I’m worried more about fatigue.”
Clear eyes, fresh legs, can’t lose?
“Rest is the most important weapon,” said Oates, thinking like a player, or at least a players’ coach. He was a coaches’ coach when he said, “We [the coaching staff] didn’t sleep much. We’ll watch tape and try to come up with any new wrinkles.”
When you score three goals against Henrik Lundqvist and still lose, new wrinkles would be in order. But the Caps seemed, both Monday night and Tuesday morning, to realize their missed opportunity. The locker room mood was somber, but then again, the chances were slim to none that the Caps were going to sweep the Rangers, with whom they’ve had some epic playoff series, including last year’s conference semifinals, which the Caps lost in seven games.
“Last night I would have said it [the mood] was a little bit down,” said Troy Brouwer, one of two Capitals who also participated in the morning’s news conference, which gave new meaning to the term “sunshine laws.” “Guys were a little bit disappointed with the outcome of the game. But today having breakfast with the guys on the 46th floor, being able to see the entire city, spirits are up right now. We know that it’s only one game; we know that we still have the lead in the series; and we’re excited at the challenge to play tomorrow night.”
Before Game 4, however, came the day off. Brouwer said he would probably use the day to “walk down by the waterfront, see what’s going on, maybe watch some basketball.”
Eric Fehr’s plans? “Not much. Get the legs going. Take a walk. Lie down in the room, watch a little TV. I wish I brought my roller blades but I didn’t, so I’ll stay in the hotel.”
John Carlson, Mathieu Perreault and Mike Ribeiro were spotted later, incognito, at the Starbucks across the street from the hotel. (Ribeiro’s disguise included a Yankees cap, but then, it often does.) Oates’s timeout allowed the Caps to enjoy a truly beautiful day here, get some rest and heal some wounds — physical dings, not emotional ones. At the beginning of the season, this team would have been stymied and confused by Monday night’s play, in which it committed six penalties, failed to score on the power play and played a passive game early against a team with its back to the wall. Now, the attitude is definitely different.
“We were not too excited about the wins [in Games 1 and 2],” Fehr said. “Now we’re not going to get too down about a loss.”
Fehr also proved the players are listening to Oates, saying “Rest is a weapon — that’s what all the veteran players say.”
Yes, they do. Veteran players, young players, even former players.
Is Oates worried about being criticized for weaponizing the Caps?
“It doesn’t cross my mind,” he said. “Every decision we make is second-guessed by someone.”
Ah, there he is, back in coach mode again.
For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.