Green Sheds Pounds, and His Burden
After a Record Season and Disappointing Postseason, a Slow Return to Form
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.