With the new-look Capitals, even a superstar's calls sometimes go unanswered. Twice in the overtime period of Washington's playoff opener against the Rangers last week, Alex Ovechkin slapped his stick on the Verizon Center ice, darted to the red line and begged his defensemen to feed him a high-risk, high-reward pass through the neutral zone that might spring him for a breakaway. But the passes never came. Instead Ovechkin's teammates prudently chipped pucks along the boards, safely away from the onrushing New York forecheck. "Yeah, it never hurts to call for 'em," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said later, "but that's not the way now."
The new way for Washington, once the league's flashiest team, calls for patience over impulse. Sure enough, with the minutes ticking down in the extra session and the score tied at 1--1, Capitals forward Jason Arnott intercepted a clearing pass from Rangers defenseman Marc Staal at the right point and fed linemate Alexander Semin, whose one-time slapper from the slot beat goalie Henrik Lundqvist for a 2--1 victory. After splitting the next two games, including a 3--2 loss in New York on Sunday, Washington held a 2--1 series lead thanks to an approach that is nearly unrecognizable for anyone recalling their older brother's Capitals.
With a commitment to defense first, the once high-octane Caps have gone diesel, employing a counterattacking, perhaps counterintuitive, approach that is barely half a season old. "Look, we don't want the creative guys to stop being creative when it's working," says Boudreau, "but these are the playoffs. The number of mistakes that end up in your net is so much higher. When we made this change in midseason, we did so because we knew we'd need the ability to win ugly in the postseason. Our goals these days aren't all works of art."
Witness their first goal in Game 1, a moment made more for mechanics than for maestros. With Washington trailing 1--0 late in the third period, Ovechkin plowed through New York defenseman Dan Girardi and jammed at a free puck in front of Lundqvist. Ovechkin continued to shove and poke until, with Staal draped over his back and four other Rangers within five feet of the crease, the puck squirmed over the goal line between Lundqvist's right skate and the post just before the net dislodged from its moorings. Afterward, both Boudreau and Ovechkin described the score as "a greasy goal." In context, it was a 10-gallon oil spill: the first time the Capitals had scored on the stingy Lundqvist in nine periods, since a 5--3 loss on Nov. 9.
The seeds for Washington's philosophical change were sown in the wasted excesses of the 2009--10 season. Those Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy with 121 points and scorched the league with 313 goals (45 more than anyone else), including 79 on the power play (11 more). Who cared if their offensive abandon occasionally resulted in turnovers and odd-man rushes? They'd get two for your one and thumb their noses at discretion. As Penguins G.M. Ray Shero puts it, they used to score six goals "for sport."
But everything fell apart in the first round of the playoffs, when the Canadiens rallied from a 3--1 series deficit to stun Washington in seven games. Amazingly, the club that had strutted into the postseason with cannons blazing exited with peashooters, scoring just one goal in the last three games—the third straight year the NHL's offensive juggernaut had been eliminated in an early-round seven-game series. "The problem wasn't poor defense," recalls G.M. George McPhee, "it was the fact that when we couldn't score, we had no other way to win. Sometimes you hit a scoring slump, a hot goalie. Good teams survive that. We needed a Plan B."
McPhee and Boudreau stuck with Plan A to open the season, as the run-and-gun Capitals built what McPhee saw as a deceiving 18-6-2 start. "We had a good record," he says, "but we didn't like how we were playing. Too loose. Too many turnovers. We felt that could catch up to us." The reckoning came when Washington dropped its next eight games, laying an egg against the rival Rangers in New York on Dec. 12 in an ugly 7--0 loss. "You can't be too stubborn," says Boudreau. "If you run a restaurant and people don't want to eat your burgers, do you keep trying to sell burgers? Do you give up and close the restaurant? Maybe you need to sell pizza instead."
The adjustment was a departure for Boudreau and Ovechkin, both of whom are preternaturally offensive-minded. Boudreau was once an Ovechkin of junior hockey, scoring 68 goals and amassing 165 points for the Toronto Marlboros in 1974--75. In 2007--08, his first season in D.C., he earned NHL coach of the year honors by allowing his players to run free with their abundant skills—the Capitals went from worst to first in the Southeast Division as Ovechkin led the league with 65 goals. Boudreau's bench style matched his playful personality. He appeared in a series of local commercials that depicted him performing birdcalls and leaving autographed pictures in lieu of tips at restaurants. The spots were not his first acting gigs: During his playing days he landed a nonspeaking role in the raucous 1977 cult comedy Slap Shot. (His apartment received significantly more screen time because the film's producers needed the sloppiest bachelor pad they could find to play the role of Paul Newman's minor league accommodations.) Was he really the kind of coach who could preach defensive rigidity?
"It probably wasn't easy for him," says McPhee. "He was good at coaching another way. But he understood. To change the system in the middle of a season like this is hard. You can't be thinking of what the system is supposed to be when you're trying to make a play; it has to be ingrained. You need a coach who can teach the right way and convince his players that it's the right thing. He pulled it off."
An abrupt philosophical shift rarely works without the support of a team's star players. Under Scotty Bowman, Steve Yzerman underwent a similar transformation with the glitzy Red Wings in the mid-1990s. With a more defensive role in a more structured system, Detroit's captain saw his numbers decline, a situation made infinitely more palatable by the fact that the Wings won three titles in six years. "We scored a lot of goals but had no playoff success," recalls Yzerman, who is now the Lightning's G.M. "So we had to become a tighter defensive team."