Washington Capitals Coach Barry Trotz walked into a losing locker room Nov. 16 and delved into a harsh diatribe, ripping the team after it had just been pummeled by the Colorado Avalanche, the NHL’s worst team a year ago. He didn’t shy from criticizing superstar captain Alex Ovechkin — or anyone else. After two years of unmatched regular season success, Washington was at a low.
At that point, the Metropolitan Division standings were so jam-packed that one bad road trip — the Capitals lost, 6-3, to the Nashville Predators two days before the 6-2 loss in Denver — hadn’t caused Washington to lose too much ground. But it was a distinct possibility for the following days, with five games coming in eight nights against some of the league’s best teams. It was fair to wonder if Trotz, in the last year of his contract, would survive the stretch.
On Friday, the team celebrated its fourth straight win and was suddenly tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets atop the Metropolitan Division entering Saturday after winning seven of the past eight games. How the Capitals might have turned the proverbial corner on this season started with that miserable road trip and what was said in the locker room after the loss to Colorado.
“I think we got our butts chewed a little bit, rightfully so, and guys stepped up, started playing better,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “Hockey’s a lot more fun when you’re playing well, playing hard for each other, like we are right now.”
Those poor showings against Nashville and Colorado highlighted issues that had been plaguing the Capitals through the first quarter of the season. Salary cap constraints weakened the roster’s depth and experience heading into the season, and Washington struggled to adjust some elements of its play to the personnel changes. More concerning than the technical tweaks that needed to be made was the team’s lackluster effort in the loss to the Avalanche. Trotz called the Capitals a “no-show.”
“The character was a little bit of a question,” right wing T.J. Oshie said two nights later.
Washington was supposed to have a day off the following Sunday, but several team leaders approached Trotz and asked to practice. “We owe you a day,” Trotz recalled them saying.
“That’s the group telling you they’re embarrassed by the way they maybe performed in the game, or cutting some corners and cheating some corners that they don’t need to,” Trotz said. “That might have been a chance for them to come together.”
The Capitals lost to the Calgary Flames, 4-1, the day after that practice, but that sparked a crucial lineup change. Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom have played on the same line for the majority of their 10 years together in Washington, but Trotz kept them separated for the start of the season. He reunited them after Washington’s loss to Calgary, and playing with right wing Tom Wilson, that top unit has been on the ice for nine goals in the past eight games. The Capitals have won seven of them.
Though the chemistry of that line has played a large part in Washington’s recent success, the team made more subtle changes to generate more offensive-zone time throughout a game, something it struggled with earlier in the season.
“We haven’t changed a ton about how we play, it’s just I think different things are more important to us this year than they have been in the past,” Niskanen said. “Wall battles are more important for us, and both net-fronts are going to be more important. Just because of who we lost and how many young guys we have, the chemistry is different and we’re a different team. We’re going to need to get to their net to score more but have to defend our net a little bit harder because we don’t have the puck as much. And we have to win more battles if we’re going to get the puck because it’s just a little bit different makeup.”
Those aspects are less about natural talent and skill and more about working hard, either to muscle for position in front of a net or jostling a puck away from an opposing player in a struggle along the boards. It was something Trotz addressed in the locker room after that loss in Colorado, when the Capitals were still somehow just four points off the Metropolitan Division lead.
Washington looks like a different team on the ice now with a new standings position to match, but the Capitals also now know just how quickly things can change.
“We’ve got like 50 games left and we’re separated by about three points between [five] teams, so I’m not getting too excited about where we are,” Trotz said.
“After one of those nights where it wasn’t a very good mood in here, I believe I said that I still believe in the potential here,” Niskanen said. “And we’re getting there. We’re doing a lot of good things. We have our moments where we’re a little flat or make some mistakes, this or that, but doing a lot of good things, too.”
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