In each of the previous four postseasons, the Washington Capitals lacked at least one key ingredient all successful teams possess.
In 2008, they didn’t have enough experience to finish off the Flyers.
In 2009, they didn’t have enough killer instinct to put away the Penguins in Game 7.
In 2010, they didn’t have enough mental fortitude against the Canadiens, despite bringing home a 3-1 series lead.
Last spring, they simply didn’t get enough from the team’s stars — or enough consistency from the goaltender — to beat Tampa Bay.
But after Brooks Laich and his teammates gritted their teeth Saturday, tossed themselves in front of slap shots and willed their way past the New York Rangers, the question must be considered: Is this Washington’s best playoff team since 1998, the year the franchise advanced to its only Stanley Cup finals?
It might be a little premature to ask that about an outfit that’s a mere 6-5 and hasn’t won a game by more than a goal, which leaves little room for error. But this much cannot be denied: the Capitals’ collective confidence is growing.
“We feel comfortable in all areas of the game right now,” Laich said after a quick practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “We’ve changed to a little more defensive style, but we’re still getting the goals when we need them. The penalty kill has been excellent. The power play gets a timely goal, which was the difference in the game [Saturday]. Our goaltending has been excellent. We’ve limited the amount of penalties we’re taking.”
Defensively, they’ve limited opponents to 2.18 goals per game, the fourth best among the seven teams alive.
Rookie goalie Braden Holtby sports a 1.94 goals against average and a .933 save percentage in 11 starts. Michal Neuvirth, for comparison’s sake, posted a 2.34 and .912 in nine starts last postseason.
And, now, the Capitals are also getting key contributions from those who are paid handsomely to do so. Alex Ovechkin has two goals in three games and Mike Green has a pair in six. Nicklas Backstrom had his strongest performance in Game 4 since returning from the concussion, and Alexander Semin directed a game-high 10 shots toward the Rangers’ cage.
“There are a lot of areas in our game that we’ve really cleaned up from years’ past, and we’re getting rewarded for it,” Laich added. “There are a lot of really little things that we pay attention to that are helping us win hockey games.”
Such as blocking shots. The Capitals lead the league with 244 in the playoffs. On Saturday, they blocked 26 and the Rangers blocked seven — two fewer than Jeff Schultz knocked down on his own. After Green’s go-ahead goal with 5 minutes 48 seconds remaining, Roman Hamrlik, Green, Matt Hendricks, Marcus Johansson, Troy Brouwer and Laich each blocked a shot to ensure the series headed back to New York tied 2-2.
“You look at the last minute of the game, we had three or four blocks from our forwards,” Schultz said. “That saved the game for us. That puck gets through, and then there’s a rebound and scramble in front. Who knows what happens?”
Laich also pointed out that the Capitals are getting help in two areas tactics cannot account for but are equally important to long playoff runs: health and luck.
The only player who has been unable to suit up this postseason, in fact, is goalie Tomas Vokoun, who has been out since March with a pulled groin muscle. And given the way Holtby has performed — and the way the Capitals have responded to playing in front of the swashbuckling rookie — Vokoun hasn’t been missed all that much.
“In the past couple of years, we haven’t gotten that break when we’ve needed it,” Laich said. “We just haven’t had that one thing turn our way. This year, we seem to get it. We get a power play with six minutes left, and they don’t clear the zone and we end up capitalizing on it.”
Another intangible, defenseman Karl Alzner noted, is the “feel” in the dressing room, a complete 180 from the way it was before in the playoffs. And it starts with Dale Hunter, the team’s stoic coach.
“In our meetings, if we lose a game, he doesn’t come in and say, ‘You guys looked terrible, you played terrible, you guys got to be better,’ ” Alzner said. “He never comes in and says that. It’s, ‘We lost, let’s forget about it.’ That really helps the entire team, but especially the guys that had a bad game. They don’t need someone to come in and tell them they had a bad game. They know they had a bad game. He lets everybody deal with it on their own. And, at this point, everyone should be able to do just that.”
As Alzner spoke, veteran Dennis Wideman leaned over from his locker stall and interjected. “Let’s don’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” Wideman whispered as he untied his skates.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re overly good in one area, which is good,” Alzner added, acknowledging Wideman’s advice to remain humble. “It keeps us fairly consistent. We find ways to win.”
As confident as they are, it’s important the Capitals and their championship-starved fans don’t look ahead. Because, after all, they need two more to advance, including at least one more at manic Madison Square Garden against a talented opponent.
But after Saturday’s effort, it’s getting hard not to, isn’t it?
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