On the way home from Dulles International Airport after the Washington Capitals’ last regular season game, Jason Arnott needed transportation back to his apartment. He had no doubts regarding whom he would ask for a ride.
Easy — the quiet one he was still getting to know.
“I rode with Sasha,” said Arnott, referring to Alexander Semin, the Caps’ mercurial young Russian star whose English curiously becomes worse the harder he is probed for answers to his game and life. “We were just shootin’ the [breeze], talkin’ about the playoffs. I wanted to know what he saw in the team. I wanted to know about his parents. Where he originated from, you know, things that make me know him better. . . .
“He doesn’t talk a whole lot, but you keep asking and eventually he opens up a little. He’s a very quiet, shy guy, someone guys gave up on a little bit as far as getting to know him. But you have to keep talking to him every day, get past the language barrier and find that common ground, even if it doesn’t look like you have any.”
After his very first game in Washington on March 1, Arnott gave his new team a bit of a dressing down — a brutally honest assessment of what he saw as Washington’s weaknesses, from “watching them on TV, playing against them and even that one game I played with them.”
Asked Tuesday about Arnott’s “talk,” Brooks Laich said: “I think it showed us right away who he was and what he was about. When he said, ‘I’m going to say some things that might sound tough, but I’m going to say them anyway,’ we took notice. This wasn’t coming from just anybody, but a guy who has won a Cup and wants to win another.”
In a mere 41 days, since General Manager George McPhee acquired the 36-year-old center from the New Jersey Devils at the NHL trading deadline, Arnott has built bridges on and off the ice for the Capitals.
As they meet the New York Rangers in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup quarterfinals Wednesday night at Verizon Center, the Capitals still have hard questions. Can Michal Neuvirth last an entire postseason in net? Will Alex Ovechkin be the old Ovi? Can Coach Bruce Boudreau harness the talent through at least two rounds of the playoffs and beyond? And, the most important, do Ovi, Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and a recovering Mike Green have the mental and physical toughness to match their peerless skill?
What they don’t have to worry about is leadership. That’s covered by a second-line center who believes this team might be his last, best chance to hoist the grail as he did 11 years ago with the Devils, scoring the Cup-winning goal in the second overtime against the Dallas Stars — the sort of indelible moments he wants to share with his new teammates.
“Did Arnie tell you he was going out to lunch with Ovi?” Laich asked. “It’s pretty amazing how he’s really tried to get to know the guys.”
In point of fact, prior to Wednesday’s Game 1, Arnott has a dinner reservation with Green and Ovechkin, whom he has become close to in less than two months (“He is very important to our team and good guy in many ways,” Ovi said Tuesday afternoon).
The skeptical part of you wonders if a wily veteran trying to hang on would try to ingratiate himself with the team’s biggest star for political reasons alone. But that’s not Arnott, who is on his fifth team in 18 seasons and remembers being the outsider on an Edmonton Oilers team that wasn’t sure what to make of him. Nearly 20 years ago, Luke Richardson and Shayne Corson showed a kid from Collingwood, Ontario, what team-building was all about.
“Shayne made me feel a part of the team, inviting me over to his family’s house for dinner, making me feel welcome and like I belonged,” Arnott said. “Same with Luke. He was my roommate the whole time I was in Edmonton. When older guys help you like that, make you feel like you can make it and be a part of what they’re doing, you realize that’s part of the NHL, that you have to do that for someone else one day.”
Of his opening-game salvo, Arnott said, “It was important to see whether the guys reacted to it, take it to heart or brush it off. This group, I can tell, took it to heart.
“I basically gave them a few pointers that were going to help us in the long run. Like cutting down on the little mistakes. Making smart decisions at certain times of games. Also, our defensive play, making sure we keep certain things in our zone — keeping that third guy high. Chippin’ the puck in instead of going for another goal one-on-whatever. When you’re up a goal or two, keeping the puck deep instead of trying to go for another goal or two.”
Basically, things that help teams win in the crucible of a tight playoff game — all the things that can help the Great Eight realize his potential and passion.
“With Ovi, I know he is the leader of this team and the team runs when he goes,” Arnott said. “How he’s thinking, what he feels, is important. He doesn’t always know how to talk to the team about how he feels because of his English, but if I can draw that from him, it’s that much easier to understand. . . .
“You don’t have many chances to win [the Stanley Cup]. When you have a special team like this, you want to make sure you give yourself every chance.”
The moment McPhee acquired him, the Capitals suddenly had a better one — thanks to a 36-year-old consensus-builder who doesn’t have time to waste if he wants to parade around the ice with the trophy held high.