On Hockey: Under Dale Hunter, these Capitals show enough mental toughness to bounce back

May 3, 2012

Every locker room has a player or two whose opinion is valued by those on the outside looking in.

On the Washington Capitals, Karl Alzner is one of them. He’s blunt and honest and always has his finger pressed firmly on the pulse of the team.

Asked how the Capitals rebound from Wednesday’s 2-1 triple-overtime loss to the New York Rangers, the defenseman observed: “We’re a lot mentally tougher than we’ve been in the past.”

There’s plenty of evidence to support Alzner’s claim.

The Capitals endured losing streaks of at least three games on four occasions from October through February. Since March 23, however, they haven’t suffered consecutive setbacks once.

Every loss — no matter how small or large, home or road, regular season or playoffs — has been followed by a victory. Rookie goaltender Braden Holtby, meantime, hasn’t lost back-to-back games in the NHL since November 2010, a span of 26 contests. And as Alzner pointed out, the Capitals already have bounced back from one overtime defeat this postseason. After dropping the opener in Boston, they rallied two nights later to stun the Bruins, 2-1, on Nicklas Backstrom’s tally in double overtime in Game 2.

If they hope to stun the top-seeded Rangers, they’ll likely need a similar result in Game 4 Saturday afternoon at Verizon Center. (Double overtime is optional. Pulling even before heading back to New York, though, is not.)

In recent weeks, Coach Dale Hunter has been lauded for transforming the run-and-gun Capitals into a disciplined, defensively-responsible outfit capable of grinding out one-goal games that often define postseason success.

But he might not be getting enough credit for the boost he’s given to the team’s collective psyche.

Earlier this season, the Capitals were anything but mentally tough. In fact, they might have been best described as fragile. Who, after all, can forget what Bruce Boudreau said after their 5-1 loss to an injury-depleted Sabres team in Buffalo on Nov. 26?

“It’s got to come from within, I’ve got to believe,” an exasperated Boudreau said. “I’m hoping that’s got to come from within because if I’ve got to teach them how to be tough, then I don’t know quite how to do that.”

Boudreau was fired two days later.

Over the past five months, Hunter appears to have figured out how to do it.

“It’s a challenge,” Alzner said, speaking well after 12:30 a.m. Thursday morning. “But with the two days off, it’s a little easier to forget and focus on [Game 4].

“You replay it tonight; then tomorrow you got to forget about it. You can’t keep looking back on games. If you look back, then you’re going to be playing that game [all over again] in the next one. You have to look forward.”

Losing in triple overtime can be deflating, but the tone of the Capitals’ comments after 115 minutes of grueling competition was one of confidence and resolve, rather than doubt and regret. Asked whether the Capitals can gather themselves and get back in the series, winger Joel Ward barely waited for the question to be posed.

“You’ve got no choice,” he said. “We were doing fine. They just ended up scoring on the last play. We’re a little down, but we feel good about ourselves. It wasn’t like anyone was holding their heads down. It was disappointing, I’m not going to lie, but at the same time, we did a lot of good things.”

Even a couple of players who missed prime chances to win the game refused to be outwardly distraught.

“You can’t dwell on it,” said Troy Brouwer, who misfired from point blank minutes into the first overtime. “We played a real good game tonight, I thought, holding them to one goal for almost two full hockey games. If we continue playing like we did tonight, creating offense, blocking shots, playing good, patient hockey, we’ll be successful.”

Added Alex Ovechkin, who fired a rolling puck off past Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and off the inside of the goal post about 10 minutes after Brouwer’s miss: “We want to win, but it’s that kind of game. One shot decides who’s going to win and who’s going to lose.”

Across the home dressing room, Matt Hendricks called it one of the team’s best efforts of the season.

“Everybody showed up to play tonight,” he said.

But will everyone show up Saturday?

That figures to be the true test of the Capitals’ newfound resiliency.

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