There are always Five Burning Questions for the Washington Capitals on the eve of each opener. But because the lockout left us with an abbreviated regular season, we’ll make it even easier and settle on the main two:
Can “Oatesy” speak “Ovi?” And more important, now that Adam Oates is calling the shots, is Alex Ovechkin aware enough to realize there was a common denominator in his disenchantment with former coaches Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter and, yes, that would be him?
“I’m always growing up,” No. 8 said, simply. “I’m ready. 100 percent healthy. Now let’s play the games.”
Ovechkin’s team is on its third coach in 13 months. He is coming off the worst scoring output of his career and a postseason in which he was limited to 13 minutes of ice time one humbling Stanley Cup playoff game.
Oh, there were nights when he still hit like a kitchen appliance on wheels and dug the corners like a backhoe. But he became the equivalent of a one-punch knockout artist on offense, usually looking for that predictable right-hand wrister at an impossible angle.
So here comes Oates to give Ovi his minutes back and then some. Yes, Ovechkin might see some penalty-kill time in Oates’s system — and he’s good with it.
More ice time, more scoring opportunities and actual communication; Oatesy is already speaking Ovi.
“When you play penalty-killing, you learn little things that maybe will help him on the power play,” Oates said. “We’ve got a lead and the team pulls the goalie, he’s got to be out there. So he’s got to know how to play there. That’s an important time for our team.
The coach added: “All I’m showing him is there’s maybe situations where we can add to the game. He’s played that position a long time, he knows it. He knows what he wants; I know what I want. Just talking to [him about] every little combination that could happen.”
The new guy is a recent hockey Hall-of-Famer and another former Cap, like Dale Hunter, last season’s one-and-done strong, silent type.
“Oatesy” has two things going for him that Hunter didn’t:
(1) He can hold conversations for upward of 30 seconds with players — and in English! (Miss ya’, “Hunts”)
(2) He wants to be here, having signed a three-year contract as opposed to Hunter’s “Get Out of Jail Free” card just 74 games in after replacing Bruce Boudreau.
Oates is incredibly precise. He sees possibilities of speed and deception in the geometry of the ice. With barely enough shifts to unveil his attacking system and so little practice time during a 48-game-in-99-day sprint of a season, Oates also looks like a crash-course math professor, worried he has cluttered up his new pupils’ minds too soon before their first quiz in Tampa Bay on Saturday night.
“You do worry about flooding their heads with too much too early — it’s something I think about a lot,” he said.
If Hunts was tough and strong and had the boys playing rugged defensive hockey at the end of last season and Boudreau was the score-first-and-ask-questions-later coach before he changed to a more defensive style in the middle of the 2010-11 season, Oates is almost a hybrid of both: all the grind-it-out purpose without turning the thoroughbreds into plodders.
The average age of the Capitals a year ago was 27.42 years, 14th-youngest in the NHL. Now they average 28.4 years (17th), but they need to play young, live clean and stay healthy if they really believe they can make a Stanley Cup finals leap after another deflating Game 7 loss before the conference finals.
The Capitals also face many challenges beyond the ice. When we last left Ovi and friends, they had saved their season and galvanized their skeptical fan base with two enthralling seven-game series, including knocking off the then-defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins in Boston.
Given the Wizards’ woes, on nights the Caps were playing a playoff game a year ago, they were unquestionably the most important team in the District.
But that was before Bryce Harper peeled around first base like a dune buggy and Robert Griffin III had yet to take a snap. Heck, D.C. United — my all-time no-respect team in the history of Washington sports — had not been to the playoffs for the first time in five years when the Capitals last played.
Now they are squarely in third-banana territory on the popularity meter, obviously behind Griffin and the football team but also trailing the Nationals and their sudden, pennant-contending ballclub.
They have some work to do in luring more than the bedrock season ticket holder back for more.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
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