For Bruce Boudreau’s first three years behind the Washington bench, two occurrences were especially rare: lengthy losing streaks and blowout losses.
In his first three years on the job, the Caps never lost more than three straight games in regulation and never went more than three games without collecting a point. Washington went 149 straight games without losing a game by as many as five goals at one point, and dropped only four games by five or more goals in Boudreau’s first 244 games as the Capitals’ bench boss.
Around the quarter pole of the 2010-11 season, that changed. In a span of 13 games, the Caps were shutout four times. All of those whitewashes were by teams beneath them in the standings, and three were against teams that aren’t in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs. Two losses of 5-0 and one of 7-0 (to the New York Rangers) were included in that stretch.
The blowout loss at New York was Washington’s sixth in succession (0-5-1), and came during a winless run that would eventually stretch to eight games (0-6-2). The team that had rolled to a 121-point, Presidents’ Trophy-winning campaign a season earlier had quite clearly and inexplicably lost its mojo.
“Playing better defensively was something that we had addressed at the end of last season,” admits Caps general manager George McPhee. “We continued to talk about it, and wondered if it was time to make that shift but we had been successful playing the way we were playing. But when we got into that losing streak, we thought then that it was time to try this.
“It’s a dangerous thing to do, because players get confused when you change systems. Sometimes they’ll lose faith in the coaching staff. It doesn’t work very often, but our coaching staff did a terrific job of making it work. We’re a better team today as a result. I’m glad they pulled it off, because it’s making us a more formidable club.
“It probably would have been hard to implement a new system without a losing streak. I think a losing streak helped our players understand that we had to do something different and play better defensively and have a more defensive system. Maybe it’s fortuitous that it happened.”
After that 7-0 loss to the Rangers in New York, Boudreau and his staff had two days in which to prepare for a Dec. 15 home game against the Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks were coming to town on a 6-2-1 roll, and they had scored four or more goals in four of those nine games.
The Caps didn’t win that game, but they limited the Ducks to two goals in a 2-1 overtime loss. That loss in New York stands as the line in the sand, and the Anaheim game is on the other side of that line. Beginning with the Ducks game, the Caps finished the season with a 30-12-8 record in their final 50 games. More impressively, they surrendered just 101 goals in those 50 games, a stingy average of 2.02 per tilt.
Boudreau credits the team; the team credits Boudreau.
“I think it’s their commitment to wanting to win,” says the Caps’ coach. “They knew what we had to do. They didn’t like the fact that during those eight games we weren’t having success, so they were like sponges when we decided to change something up. Consequently, they’ve liked the results.”
“We had some meetings,” says veteran right wing Mike Knuble
. “Things are said and things are aired out a bit from the coaching staff to the leadership group on our team. It ultimately comes down to the players and being responsible and accountable. They’ve implemented a new system for us and the players have grabbed hold of it. We’ve all accepted it. Probably some guys aren’t going to score as many goals as they used to in the past. They’ve got to get over that. Team success is one way to do that. If the team is successful the individual stuff will be forgotten.”
“It just shows how our coaching staff adapted,” says right wing Matt Bradley. “Last year, goals were coming in bunches. Defense wasn’t as important because we were scoring five goals a game. But when you don’t score the goals, then you have to play tighter defense. The coaches made some great changes in our systems and we’ve really been working hard in our zone and the neutral zone. I think it’s paid off for us. If we didn’t play that way, we wouldn’t be where we are right now.”
The changes that were made were to the team’s play in its own end and in the neutral zone.
“The neutral zone, we had to change,” declares Boudreau. “I knew that because we based our [previous system] on total quickness. Our gaps were getting too big and consequently teams were able to get through our neutral zone. So we had to really tighten it up.
“The change in our zone coverage has been very gradual. We started bringing the guys back, and then we’ve tweaked the positioning to where it is now where we’re pretty good at it.”
Washington went through a very uneven middle to its season. The Capitals were 18-15-9 over the middle 42 games of the campaign, a stretch that included the eight-game winless streak. The team struggled to score goals; 10 of its 23 losses in regulation (and 11 of its losses on the season) came via the shutout route.
“It took some drastic measures for us to get to where we are now,” notes Caps forward Brooks Laich
. “There was a trade early on, [Tomas Fleischmann] for [Scott] Hannan, and then an eight-game losing streak where we weren’t scoring goals. It changed our thought process to where we thought, ‘if we’re only going to score two, we better only give up one. And if we’re only going to score three, we better only give up two.’ That, coupled with the acquisitions at the trade deadline, makes us a very tough two-way team and tough to play against.”
The trade deadline brought veteran forwards Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm (via waivers) and seasoned defenseman Dennis Wideman
. After another embarrassing loss (6-0) to the Rangers on Feb. 25, the Caps reeled off nine straight wins and finished the season on a 16-3-1 roll.
“So much credit belongs to the goaltending,” says Boudreau. “I didn’t realize how good Scott Hannan was, once he got indoctrinated here. The addition of Dennis Wideman
, the emergence of John Erskine
and the two kids [Karl Alzner
and John Carlson
] growing up and developing has been so instrumental. You take that and you add the time that Dean Evason and Bob Woods have put into the penalty killing to make that one of the best units in the league.”
The penalty killing has been a great story since day one of the season. Washington finished with a kill rate of 85.6% on the season, second best in the NHL and far better than its 78.8% mark of the previous season.
In 2009-10, the Caps surrendered multiple power play goals in a game a dozen times. They did so just four times in 82 games in 2010-11.
“If we get a [power play] goal scored on us in a game, we’re really upset,” says Boudreau. “But we go three or four games without a power play goal against. The goaltending, the defense and the PK have been great.”
Boudreau also gives his team’s forwards credit for their part in the turnaround.
“The forwards have bought in, too,” notes Boudreau. “When you’ve got [Alex Ovechkin
] and [Alexander] Semin dumping pucks in, those guys are known as game-breaking guys that just go. It bothers me when people say those guys are having bad year. Ovi is plus-24, seventh in the league in scoring and playing on one of the better defensive teams in the league.”
The bottom line? The Caps achieved what few (if any) teams have ever been able to achieve in pro sports history. They quite literally changed their identity and underwent a facelift in mid-season without a coaching change. No one in the Caps’ locker room could remember any team having undergone such a radical transformation in midstream without a change at the helm.
“We totally changed,” says Knuble. “I think we’re viewed as a much different team. When you have some of the offensive horses we have, you just want to let them go. You keep your fingers crossed it’s going to work out, and hope we’re going to keep scoring. These guys are too talented to rein in and make them play both ends. But ultimately that’s how we’re going to be successful.
“You change coaches, you might tweak a few things. But for a team to change its identity – especially a good team – that’s really rare. I don’t think I’ve seen that.”
“I can’t remember a team playing totally different like we did,” says left wing Jason Chimera
. ”We were just run and gun, run and gun. It worked, but when you get caught you get caught and five or six goals get scored against you. There were no safety lines.
“Now, we’ve changed our way of thinking really. The goal scoring went down for a while because we were playing so defensively for a while. We had to figure out different ways to win games, and now we’re among the top teams in goals against. I’ve never seen it happen without a coaching change.”
The transformation now gets its true test. As the Caps head into the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, they’re not all that different personnel-wise. But on the ice, they’re not only different from last year’s team, they’re different from the team that took the ice at the start of this season.
“It feels different,” says Laich. “It’s a different team. I’ve been saying that all year long, that we can’t try and avenge last year’s team. We’ve got to focus on winning with this year’s team. We’re not scoring 350 goals this year. We broke 200, but we’re not going to be lighting up every team with five goals every night. But right now we feel very comfortable with where we are. The games that we’re in are one-goal games, and we seem to find a goal at the right time and come out on top. I think we’re playing the right way.”
“I think we realized in that past that you can’t just play on skill,” states McPhee. “You’ve got to play with some skill, but you’ve got to have good team play. You’re not going to be able to outscore everybody in a particular game or in a series. You’re going to have some moments where you’re not scoring and you’ve got to be able to play well defensively to win games. We’ve been winning a lot of games now because we’re good defensively.”
Having gone through the adversity of the long winless streak, the microscope of the HBO television series, the spotlight of the Winter Classic and other various trials and tribulations has also been beneficial to the Capitals in 2010-11.
“I like how our team is made up,” exudes Knuble. “I like the direction we’re going in, I like our philosophy of how we’re playing the game and how players are executing it. I think we’re all very, very happy with that. The ups and downs of the season have been good for us because it made us change, it made us look in the mirror and admit we weren’t going in the right direction.
“The change was made from the top and it came down to us. The players have adapted. The good thing was we didn’t try to change in February. We changed in December when you still have 40 or 50 games left to really get used to it. Now, guys are confident in what they’re doing and they believe in what they’re doing because they’re getting results. I think that’s the biggest way you can sell it, is to get the results.”
“We started really well and then we had about three months of pretty average hockey and we finished strong,” observes McPhee. “At one point I said to Bruce, ‘This may be the best thing that ever happened to us, to go through this kind of adversity.’ I think it made us better in the long run. We’ve learned to play tighter hockey, we’ve learned to play with 2-1 leads and be comfortable in the real tight games. That’s the big difference I think between this year’s team and last year’s team and I think that’ll help us in the playoffs.”
After one of the more interesting and taxing 82-game rides of recent memory, the Caps ended up right where they did at the end of last season, in the top spot of the Eastern Conference standings.
“It’s a long year,” notes Boudreau. “Teams get in grooves and they get in ruts. Right now, things are not only going well but the confidence is high. So they’re playing well and they’re believing in themselves. We’ve been trying to do the same thing for months now, and it’s getting better and better. With success, they believe in it more. I think we’ve had a little bit of success, so they believe the way they play is the right way.”
The Capitals will now try to extend that collective belief over another two months and 16 victories.
“First and foremost,” says McPhee, “I’m proud of the way this team has played this year. I’m proud to be able to say we won a division title. It wasn’t easy. It’s never easy in pro sports to win a division. I’m really pleased with that. It was a challenge; it was hard on everybody this year. But as we look at the year in its totality, it was a really interesting year, always a phenomenal experience.
“But hopefully the best experience is right in front of us. The playoffs are fun. I love the coaching that goes on and the changes from game to game. I love to watch the way that players elevate their play. If we keep knocking on the door every year, winning division titles and getting home ice [advantage] and everything else, one of these years we’re going to have a good run. I hope this is it.”
He’s got a lot of company there.