“The guys that shy away in those games tend to be pretty skilled players,” Oshie said. “That’s what we want to do to other teams’ top players. We want them to think that every time they’re getting the puck, they’re getting hit.”
Wednesday’s season opener between the Capitals and the host St. Louis Blues is a matchup of the past two Stanley Cup champions but also of the teams most responsible for bringing back “heavy” hockey. After Washington won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 2018 with a hard-hitting, suffocating style, St. Louis similarly found success with physicality and a hulking roster in June.
The NHL never abandoned that exactly, but when the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017 by wearing out opponents with more speed and skill and less checking, a copycat league followed suit with rosters built around skating rather than brawn. Now the emphasis is on finding a happy medium between the two approaches, something the Capitals are hopeful they rediscovered with some additions to their lineup this summer.
“I think the speed and quickness is a big part of the game, but I do think you have to have the ability to play a heavy game,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think the balance is the tricky part, to get enough of both in your lineup. … We were probably a little more heavy than fast when we won, but now I think we have a good blend of it. We have good team speed, it feels like, and we can play a heavy game.
“I just think the styles change throughout the year. The regular season starts off with a little more pace, and then as you get closer to playoffs it gets to be a tighter game and becomes a heavier game, so the flexibility of your lineup is the key to that.”
With a returning cast that included hard hitters Alex Ovechkin, Tom Wilson and Oshie, the Capitals added defenseman Radko Gudas and forward Garnet Hathaway this summer. Their marquee signing was right wing Richard Panik, and while he is known more for his two-way play than for being physical, he gives Washington more size in the forward ranks at 6-feet-2, 202 pounds. Those players complement — and often create space for — the team’s fastest players: Carl Hagelin, Jakub Vrana and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Capitals Coach Todd Reirden has preached that his team will be “more aggressive” this year, in large part because that attack is more sustainable over a long season after the team’s early playoff exit afforded players a long summer to recover. The team was coming off a draining Stanley Cup run a year ago, and the fatigue from all of the extra hockey showed throughout the season. As for what being more aggressive might look like, Reirden explained that it’s using the team’s speed and fresh legs to get to more pucks and also apply pressure when the opponent has possession, hopefully causing more turnovers.
“To play that style of hockey where we’re at our best has a physical element to it,” Reirden said. “We want to be a much heavier forechecking team. I think we can do that now a little bit better with some of the personnel.”
As teams went all-in on speed in reaction to the Penguins’ championships, smaller, shiftier players briefly had an edge over the players who dwarfed them but couldn’t get down the ice quite as fast. St. Louis General Manager Doug Armstrong said he has seen “the bigger players catching up to the pace of the game” now. Washington’s Wilson is an example: intimidating because he towers over opponents at 6-4 and 220 pounds while also being among the team’s slickest skaters.
Players caution against confusing physicality with chasing hits. Oshie said the Capitals aren’t “hitting to hurt people,” but “first and foremost, to separate them from the puck, and secondly, to give your team a little jolt.” If going for a check takes a Washington player out of position, it’s probably not worth it.
“When everything’s skill, the game feels like it’s — I don’t want to say it’s getting soft, but you know, that’s kind of the way it seems,” Oshie said. “Physicality can make a difference. It can change a series. It can change a game. When you’re a guy who doesn’t mind going out there and getting in the battles, it makes it more fun. …
“Fans love seeing the big hits. When you see a big hit, it gets a crowd going.”
The Capitals’ size is in their forward corps, and the Blues have a hulking defense with five members at 6-2 or taller. That helped neutralize their opponents’ speed during the grueling postseason, when wear and tear accumulates.
“I don’t think it’s a sense that the referees put their whistles away,” Armstrong said. “I think the players just play a hard, physical — but clean — game.”
The clean part will be significant to a Capitals team that has been in the crosshairs of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety in recent seasons. Wilson served a 16-game suspension, the fourth of his career, last season, and Gudas also had four suspensions with the Philadelphia Flyers.
“They’re on my case for last six years,” Gudas cracked on the first day of Washington’s training camp.
It’s another line the Capitals will have to mind this season — playing within the rules but being hard to play against, and not sacrificing speed for physicality or vice versa. But they prefer doing it this way over any other.
“It’s definitely trending toward skill and speed, but at the end of the day, it’s always going to be a tough sport,” Wilson said. “There’s always going to be that element of physical duress and blocking shots and taking hits and the odd fight. I think that’s why everyone loves it.”