One morning last week, I happened to be asking Matt Niskanen about leadership. Our conversation had nothing to do with the Caps’ recent transactions, nor with Niskanen’s own role on the team. I was just curious whether the public perception of athletic leadership — looking steely and sounding eloquent in front of a microphone, or maybe calling a players-only meeting and then telling the world about it — matches the perception inside a team’s dressing room.
“Not necessarily,” Niskanen said. “I think that will always kind of stay behind closed doors, true leadership moments. And that’s where it probably should be; that’s part of being a team. There’s times when I think the biggest thing is how do people act when you get into uncomfortable situations. How do you play when things are a little uncomfortable, and it’s do or die? Those are leadership moments.”
A few hours later, the veteran defenseman jack-hammered a power-play shot that was deflected into the net, giving Washington a comeback win over Pittsburgh. The next night, Niskanen notched the game-winning goal in a victory over Toronto. Three days later, Niskanen had another game-winner, this time in a comeback win over the Bruins. Three times in five nights — with the Caps in uncomfortable late-game moments — the puck left Niskanen’s stick and wound up behind a goalie. Were those leadership moments?
This Caps team, sometimes dogged by leadership questions over the past decade, now has an interesting way of discussing its flow chart. Alex Ovechkin is the captain, and Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Orpik wear letters as alternates. Ask around the dressing room, though, and the standard view isn’t that the Caps have two or three great leaders. It’s that they have more.
“Probably half the room,” Orpik said.
“I’d say, legitimately, probably 95 percent of the guys,” Karl Alzner said.
“There’s so many guys that speak up,” T.J. Oshie said. “You can’t have eight or nine letters, but there’s a good leadership group here.”
It’s good, players say, not because of fiery intermission diatribes, or a players-only meeting like the one that propelled the Redskins during their second-half run. (“I think everyone envisions these rah-rah speeches … I don’t know too many hockey players who are like that,” Niskanen said. “The stuff you see in movies? Not too often.”)
These Caps instead cite more subtle things, small flourishes at the edges of a season’s silhouette. The way Tom Wilson barrels around the ice when he’s in that sweet spot between physicality and a penalty. The way the league’s top goal scorer doesn’t hesitate to block a shot or throw his body into an opponent, even when he probably shouldn’t. The way Justin Williams chatters on the bench; “How calm he is, how he says the right things at the right times,” Alzner said. “Justin Williams is one of the best leaders I’ve ever played with.”
And the way the entire roster will recognize a bit of grunt work that leads to another ho-hum early-March win.
“This team’s really positive in that way,” T.J. Oshie told me. “Guys notice those little things.”
Now consider one of the best moments of the past week, when the Caps won three out of four games in five nights, continuing their season-long spree of .750-ish hockey.
After falling behind rival Pittsburgh 2-0, Washington rallied back to tie the score, and earned a third-period power play. The Penguins appeared to have an easy clear. Then Oshie launched himself between two Penguins, sweeping the puck back to Nicklas Backstrom while horizontal to the ice. From there, the puck went to Niskanen, whose blast kissed Oshie on its way into the net.
Oshie wound up with the goal. The part his teammates noticed was the effort before that.
“We all saw it,” Orpik said. “He’s kind of just relentless.”
“They call those 50-50 pucks, but that was one where it took an extraordinary effort even to have a chance,” Niskanen said. “There’s effort, and then there’s second- and third-effort type stuff. And that’s a second- and third-effort type play.”
“See, I think there’s a trickle-down affect,” Alzner said. “One of our most skilled players on the team is going out and making plays like that. It makes everybody think, ‘Okay, if he’s doing it, then I should be able to do that, I should be doing stuff like that. … That’s what I mean [about leadership]. I’m looking at the names; everybody in this room leads in a different way. And they don’t have a letter on their jersey. They just do the right things.”
Sure, “playing the right way” and grit and character are hackneyed and overdone. But look at the stats that might indicate a team with a rigid backbone and an unwavering approach. Washington just set an NHL record by playing in 10 straight one-goal games, and now has a .706 winning percentage in games decided by a single goal, tops in the NHL. The Caps are 19-11-4 when giving up the first goal. No other NHL team has a winning record when falling behind; only three other teams win even 40 percent of such games.
Washington’s strongest period is the third; the Caps’ +32 goal differential in that period is easily the best in the league. (Only one other team is above +14 in the third.) And the Caps are the only NHL team without consecutive regulation losses this season. (They’re now 12-0-1 following a regulation loss, holding opponents to two goals or less in 11 of those games.)
Is that leadership and character, or just being really good at hockey? It’s probably some of both. Does it guarantee playoff success? Not at all. But it helps convince you to nod along when players talk about how effective their leadership is, even if it doesn’t look like a movie script.
“I think maybe the outside perception of what leadership is is a lot different than what it actually is,” Niskanen said. “People say, ‘Oh, he’s a good locker-room guy,’ this and that. How the hell does anybody know besides us? I always read that and I think ‘Well that’s a crock.’ I mean, it could be true, but how does anybody know unless we tell people?”
They’re telling us their leadership is as strong as it’s ever been. Their on-ice performance is saying the same thing.