By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Mike Green couldn't remember the last time he felt as comfortable as he did Monday night.
His stick felt just right. His gloves were supple and snug. His mind was uncluttered, and his slimmed-down body felt strong.
"It all just clicked," the Washington Capitals defenseman said, shrugging.
Coach Bruce Boudreau called Green's effort in the Capitals' shootout loss to the New Jersey Devils the 24-year-old's best game since last March -- just before his record-breaking regular season gave way to a postseason letdown.
Green's goal against the Devils was his first since Game 6 of the Capitals' Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers on April 26. In the locker room Monday night, he admitted it felt like an enormous burden had been lifted, saying, "I finally feel comfortable."
To fully understand Green's relief, one first must understand how far he had fallen.
Green led all NHL defensemen with 31 goals and 73 points last season, broke a 25-year-old record for defensemen by scoring in eight consecutive games and became the first defenseman in 16 years to eclipse the 30-goal plateau. He had joined Alex Ovechkin as Capitals superstars, and a spot on his native Canada's 2010 Olympic team seemed likely.
But it took only 14 playoff games to tarnish all that he had accomplished from October to March. Sick, hurt and more than two dozen pounds over his ideal playing weight, Green had become a shell of the flashy blue-liner who would later finish second in voting for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the league's best defenseman in the regular season.
His trademark burst of speed was gone. His sniper-like shots suddenly sailed wide of the net. His passes missed their marks.
Green finished the playoffs with one goal, nine points and a team-worst plus-minus rating of minus-5, including a minus-3 performance in the Capitals' stunning Game 7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the semifinals.
"He wasn't as good in the playoffs," said Boudreau, who has developed a close relationship with Green as both have risen from relative obscurity with the minor league Hershey Bears to stars in Washington. "He had a lot burden and pressure on himself. Even though Mike is from Calgary, he's like a country boy that's just come into the big time."
Indeed, Green's postseason struggles were not only physical. All the scrutiny and criticism stung, and as a result, he began to over-analyze things that came so easy in the regular season. In particular, the delicate balance an offense-minded defenseman must possess was thrown off.
"He over-thinks the game a little bit sometimes," Boudreau said. "And it's based on the fact that he wants to do so well and he cares so much. I always tell him when he's in a rut, 'Do what you do best: Be Mike Green.' "
But getting back to the Mike Green who Boudreau played more than anyone else last season first meant nursing himself back to health. Upon returning to his hometown Calgary, he began rehabilitating his injured shoulder. And instead of working on building muscle like most fourth-year professionals, Green focused on shedding the 29 pounds he'd gained during the season and adhering to a healthier diet. Poor eating habits, Green said, had not only caused his weight gain but also were to blame for the dangerously low iron levels that sapped his energy in the playoffs.
"It was a mistake he made," Boudreau said of Green's weight. "He let it get away from him."
It wasn't the first time Boudreau had seen Green pack on a significant number of pounds during a season.
"The same thing happened in Hershey," Boudreau added. "I said, 'Mike, you have to look after your weight.' So he starved himself and he was so weak. So I said, 'Mike, forget about it. Just play the way you're playing. I don't want you to kill yourself.' So when he put on a few pounds last year, I wasn't really ready to bring it up in the middle of a playoff run because I didn't want it to affect him."
Green said he has a genetic propensity to being overweight, and because of that, he needs to be more careful than his teammates.
"I've found that I'm not like everyone else," said Green, who reported to training camp last month weighing 204 pounds, just three more than the 201 pounds he checked in at a year earlier. "I can't eat whatever I want and be fine. I have to make sure that I eat a certain way to perform at my best."
Keeping the weight off will be his next challenge, but he's asked for help from his Calgary-based personal trainer, Doug Crashley, who said he plans to visit Green in Washington once each month.
"When he's not careful and there are late-night meals on the road, every calorie goes right on him," Crashley said by phone recently. "You can see it. I watch the games on the NHL Center Ice package. I watch all of his close-ups. And when I see some water weight build up in his face, I know it's time to give him a call and get on him."
Last season, Green said he would often skip breakfast before practice or a morning skate and then eat big, high-calorie lunches and dinners. But club sandwiches and fries are a thing of the past. On Tuesday, for example, Green said he ate egg whites, whole wheat toast and fruit for breakfast, a chicken Caesar salad and pasta for lunch and a chicken breast sandwich for dinner. He supplemented the meals with protein shakes and vitamins.
With his weight and nutrition under control, Green recently set out to fix another issue he had during the playoffs: finding a new stick that allowed him to "feel" the puck. The batch of sticks he had used to score all those goals in the regular season had run out before the playoffs, and Easton, the manufacturer, doesn't make them anymore.
Green tried a few different models in the preseason and first five games of the regular season before finally settling on the Easton ST for Monday's game. He also switched back to his old gloves.
"A lot of people think it's just a stick," Green said. "It's not."
Joel Fish, a sports psychologist who has worked with athletes on all of Philadelphia's professional teams, said Green's fixation on finding the perfect equipment is not unusual.
"If a player believes a bat has a lot of hits in it, or a stick has a lot of goals in it, it doesn't cause him to get hits and score goals but it helps their confidence, and so much of sport is confidence," Fish said. "Every bit can make a difference. A stick can give a player a sense of security a sense of control. It can be transferred to another stick. Players don't get to the NHL if they are not able to have flexibility or make adjustments" to new equipment.
Green said he's rediscovered that comfort level after scoring with his new stick against the Devils, gesturing as if he were cradling a stick in his two hands.
"My stick felt too long," Green said. "Then I cut it shorter, and it felt too short. It was all in my head. But now when I go to the rink, I just put on my gear and I just go. I don't think about anything, like my stick or this or that. That's when I'm at my best, when I'm just playing and not thinking."
Green will need to be at his best if the Capitals are going to reach their full potential this season. He also needs to be at his best over the next two months if he hopes to snag one of the seven spots on Canada's stacked blue line. Green said he spoke to Team Canada General Manager Steve Yzerman after the game in Detroit last Saturday.
If he can keep playing the way he did Monday, Green might be able to help both causes.
"I just feel normal again," he said. "Everything feels comfortable. My gloves, my stick, my vision. It's almost like I had to take a step back when everything was frustrating and release everything. And that's what I did."