The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This is how the Caps convinced the NHL they’re for real

(Toni L. Sandys/ The Washington Post)
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Disbelief is one of life’s great motivators. For proof, look at the local football team, which lapped up predictions of its incompetence and then happily belched them back at the world following this season’s shocking division title.

The Capitals better find a different motivational tactic. Because even in the stolid, slow-to-be-convinced, suit-and-tie bastion of the NHL, everyone now believes.

Want proof? Ask the broadcasters in town for Sunday’s nationally televised 3-2 win over the Flyers — which tied the Caps (38-9-4) for the most wins through 51 games of any NHL team in 70 years.

“Everybody believes in them, absolutely,” NBC’s Pierre McGuire said. “They’re for real.”

Capitals face a crowded calendar over the last two months of the season

Or meander around the temporary television studios which sprouted up in Nashville during the league’s all-star weekend.

“I don’t see another team in the Eastern Conference — right now, based on how they’ve played — that can beat them in a seven-game series,” said the NHL Network’s Kevin Weekes.

Or ask some of the league’s best players and coaches what they think about the Capitals.

“One mistake and it’s in the back of our net, and then boom, they just take off,” said Buffalo’s Ryan O’Reilly.

“They’re a scary team, when you can almost kind of score at will like that,” said Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop.

“The Caps are outstanding,” added Florida Coach Gerard Gallant. “I mean, they’re obviously a favorite to win the Cup right now.”

These are strange times for a franchise that’s spent the past decade, if not most of its existence, fighting for national recognition and praise. It’s never been hard to find skeptics eager to dismiss Washington’s style of play, its coaching acumen, its Russian captain or its playoff pedigree. Often it felt like the later winter months offered a direct challenge to the Caps from the league: We do not believe in you, the league said. See if you can prove us wrong.

From October: How far do the Capitals need to go this season to not be considered a disappointment?

That hasn’t happened, of course, but this season is calibrated differently. Each week brings more wins and more crazy numbers — the league’s top-scoring team is now an absurd 27-0-2 when scoring at least three goals — and each week seems to attract even more public declarations of belief. In the past, Washington’s players have flipped on NHL Network or TSN and seen indifference or uncertainty. This year?

“We hear the guys say that they actually think we’re the real deal,” Karl Alzner said on Sunday. “And that’s nice. I mean, it’s good to get a little bit of respect.”

In the past, the Caps have seemed especially hard to warm up to north of the border, where a nation of Gords and Colins has suspected something was missing in Washington. This year?

“Believe me, they have got the full attention of the Canadian hockey fan,” said Dave Randorf, one of the play-by-play voices of “Hockey Night in Canada.” “In Canada, people are jumping on that Capitals bandwagon. Because they recognize this team’s got depth, they’re fun to watch, they’ve got great goaltending and they’re physical. They’ve got everything that the Canadian hockey fan likes.”

In the past, the Caps have spent February and March in some futile attempt to establish their bona fides. This year, they seem likely to be grappling primarily with history. Washington has the most points and wins in the NHL, is off to the best start in franchise history and is on pace to finish as one of the most successful regular season teams the league has ever seen.

“You get into February and you’re still on pace to do these things, then yeah, you’ve got to start saying ‘Wow, this team is really good,’ ” said ESPN’s Barry Melrose. “They’re big, they’re physical, they’re good defensively, they’re good on the power play. They’re just solid in every aspect of the game — more solid than I can ever remember a Washington Capitals team being.”

Everything that has impressed the hockey establishment was on display again in Sunday’s matinee win. The hockey world loves Washington’s scoring depth; Sunday brought goals from defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen. The hockey world loves Washington’s ability to win games in different ways; Sunday the Caps plowed on despite another disjointed outing from its league-leading power play, getting a spark instead from its penalty kill and a rare Alex Ovechkin deflection. The hockey world is head-over-heels for Braden Holtby; Sunday he kept Washington in the game with several dab-worthy saves, stopping 33 of 35 shots while recording his league-leading 33rd win. The hockey world swoons for Washington’s coach; Barry Trotz needed just 51 games this season to hit 38 wins, the same number Adam Oates finished with in 2014.

And the hockey world respects a Caps team that never seems to deviate from its approach, that never seems panicked and appears impervious to late-game assaults. The Caps are now 29-0-1 when leading after two periods; imagine if the Nats ever had closers like that. You think the rest of the league hasn’t noticed the kind self-control and responsibility that contributes to a mark like that?

Boswell: How did Barry Trotz revive Capitals? By addressing one flaw at a time.

“From their star players right down to their fourth-line guys, you can see their discipline and commitment to playing the system the right way,” said Montreal’s P.K. Subban. “That has probably been the biggest part of their success, for sure.”

What’s the end result of all this respect and admiration? Not much. If this season doesn’t end with spring success, critics will retroactively find the fatal flaws we’re right now missing. And by the time playoff previews start sprouting in early April, much of this current dominance will be discarded in favor of “now it really counts” headlines.

Still, there’s a feeling of calm inevitability in so much of what Washington does that it’s fine to relish the present. Everyone in the NHL is scrutinizing what the Caps are doing this season. And if any ambivalence remains, it’s getting awfully tough to find.

“Tell me what weakness they have?” Weekes requested. “There’s no weakness.”

“They’ve been so consistent,” said the NHL Network’s Scott Stevens. “I don’t think you can say that for any other team in the league, really, besides the Caps.”

“I love the team,” said Sportsnet’s Glenn Healy, and then he echoed just about every mind in hockey. “I’m a believer.”

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