No one can know whether the Capitals’ season will be over in just two more games against the tough New York Rangers or whether this is the year Washington wins the Stanley Cup. In the past, only one of those possibilities was, with hindsight, a sane consideration. Now, both are actually feasible outcomes because the Capitals are a changed hockey club. Under Coach Dale Hunter, they are playing like a team — 20 men with the same idea.
Who knows exactly how Hunter, hired in the middle of what seemed like a lost season, has broken the star syndrome that’s cursed the Caps in the playoffs for years, but he’s done it.
High character, in the hockey sense of physical toughness and psychological stability under pressure, can be identified in someone like Hunter, but you never know if those qualities can be transmitted. Right now, the team that was so battered for months is 100 percent healthy, devoted to Hunter’s defensive selfless style and downright go-for-the-Cup dangerous.
But the Caps are still only dead even with the No. 1-seeded Rangers after a 3-2 victory at Verizon Center in Game 4 of their second-round playoff series on Saturday. Nonetheless, momentum took a turn as the team which lost agonizingly in triple overtime on Wednesday — such a doomed Caps moment — showed the resiliency to come back with an often dominating effort to even the series.
This matchup, this whole postseason, in fact, has a powerful sense of deja vu; the Caps have been here before recently, but always in the opposite role as the regular season power that gets upset in the spring.
Now, they get to see how those other guys got to feel, always dancing in their Phone Booth after an upset win.
“Yes, there’s something to it. I don’t think you have as much pressure” as the underdog, said Nicklas Backstrom, who scored the Caps’ second goal. “I think it is good for us. We like that.”
Then, unsolicited, Backstrom added: “The last two weeks of the regular season felt like the playoffs with every game so important. That helped get us ready for games like this. There’s a different mentality now. Everybody is buying in and working together.”
Among the Young Guns of five seasons ago, perhaps Backstrom always bought into whatever was asked. But others didn’t. The tip of the spear in changing the Caps’ culture was Hunter’s willingness and ability to redefine Alex Ovechkin’s role, cutting his playing time significantly, especially when more defense was required.
Just as important, Ovechkin respected Hunter enough, or valued his teammates or wanted to change his playoff-failure reputation so much — or all of it together — that he has accepted what many stars in other sports, and some in hockey, would consider grave disrespect for a two-time MVP.
Imagine how Kobe or LeBron or so many others in various games would respond to having their playing time reduced by a full third from their glory years, as Ovechkin’s was during Saturday’s win. Ovechkin’s response: He scored the first goal of the game on a slap shot that ripped off the tip of the glove of sainted Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist
“Alex told me: ‘I don’t care about the ice time. If I don’t, why does anybody else care about their ice time?’ ” Caps General Manager George McPhee said after the win.
Of course, if Ovechkin doesn’t care terribly much, and he’s certainly cheering on his mates when he’s on the bench and acting like . . . well . . . a real team captain, then obviously no other Caps player can say anything to Hunter except “Yes, coach.”
That is an entirely new concept in the current Caps era, when too many have been coddled or simply accepted as they are. Few new coaches would have any prayer of changing a locker room as decisively as Hunter has. In fact, he looked like a dismal mismatch with his players with as little as three weeks left in the regular season.
But Hunter hung tough and, perhaps, got lucky, too. How many shots rang off the pipes late in the year or in the first round of the playoffs against the Bruins that could have, if they had been one inch different, ended the Caps’ season and Hunter’s gamble? However, in a reversal of traditional Caps karma, the playoffs were reached and the first round won with each success in a close, low-scoring game, adding to the conclusion that Hunter’s way could work.
“We had a tough season,” said McPhee, referring to lengthy injuries to Backstrom and Green, as well as low scoring by Ovechkin until the final month. “They really had to grind it out at the end. That helped get them ready.
“Becoming a mature hockey team is a process. They’ve matured. Now they focus on only one game, the next one,” McPhee said. “That’s what’s gotten good.”
And everybody has bought into the program, including the Great Eight, who, as recently as a couple of years ago symbolized, in some ways, professional immaturity? “Ovi is doing great,” McPhee said.
Once a team believes that its collective narrative has changed, then its sense of its own history — granted, in the Caps’ case a very recent and still sparse history — can be reinforcing, not eroding.
“After that long game the other night we were kind of tired but we came in and found a way to win,” said Backstrom, proving again that a key difference in sports between blinding genius and cliche is whether you win.
Game 4 had one potential controversy — whether Ovechkin should be disciplined by the NHL for a questionable high hit on the Rangers’ Dan Girardi.
Girardi wasn’t hurt and Ovechkin will probably skate. But this will be a nice litmus test for how the Caps’ luck is really running this postseason. The top seed in the Western Conference is already out and the No. 2 is down three games to none while the Caps have taken care of the No. 2 Bruins in the East.
Sound familiar? Every couple of seasons it seems that the postseason breaks just perfectly to give somebody a tough but manageable path to the Stanley Cup. Could it be the Caps this time? Don’t say it to McPhee or your health could be in danger. “We’re not thinking is those terms at all,” he said. “We have one game — Monday night in the Garden. That’s it.”
How focused, how mature. And how unlike the Caps.
But you can bet the Caps feel the possibility, remote as it still is.
“Maybe. It could play out like that,” said Mike Green, who scored the game-winner in the third period on a scalding slap shot through the five hole from the top of the right circle. “We’re very comfortable, to be honest. We know what it takes to win under Dale’s system. It works.”
Especially if nobody cares which 20 men dress or how many minutes they get or how many times they have to throw themselves in front of a sizzling Rangers shot. On Saturday, the Caps swamped the Rangers in their own favorite unselfishness statistic — blocked shots, 26-7, led by seldom-heralded Jeff Schultz with nine.
“Nine!” Hunter said approvingly. “That’s good. The guys are committed.”
From Ovechkin (13th on the team in minutes played) down to the last man, it seems that, at long last, the Caps know that they better be.
For Thomas Boswell previous columns, visit washingtonpost.