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Once More, With Feeling

How a closed-door, players only meeting refocused the Caps and reminded them of what really matters - each other, and the addicting feeling of winning.

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / Monumental Sports Network

Roughly two months from now, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is going to award the Stanley Cup to one of the 16 teams that made the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. And whether that team happens to be the Washington Capitals or not, those two months are coming off the calendar. 

It's precisely that inexorable march of time that serves as the Caps' inspiration this spring as they vie once again to hoist the coveted chalice for the first time in the franchise's 42 seasons in the league. 

Close your eyes for a minute, and try to imagine if you can how the Capitals' roster might look in 2017-18. Ten players on the current team - basically, half the roster - have contracts that expire at the end of June, and most will be due significant raises. The salary cap is expected to remain relatively flat, so even though you might want to retain most of this season's 118-point team and to keep them together for a few more seasons, basic mathematics tells you it won't be possible. Many of these current Caps will pull on the red sweater for the final time at some point between now and June, and there's no way around that.

There will be changes, sweeping changes, more changes than there have been over the last two summers. You'd like to think that with a nucleus of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby, John Carlson and others still in the fold, the Caps would at least be a playoff team again next spring. But you know the Florida Panthers and New York Islanders went into this season with similar beliefs, only to see it all fizzle out and to fall short at season's end. 

The Capitals are quite mindful of all of this, and that mindfulness is what helped put them firmly on the path of another supreme regular season performance in 2016-17, because this season didn't start on that track.

More on that in a bit. First, let's digress to something painful. 

One otherwise fine morning in the middle of last May, the Capitals convened one last time at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, some 36 hours after their season and their dreams of raising the Cup died in Pittsburgh, in overtime of Game 6 of their second-round series with the Penguins. The Caps returned to the District, faced the media and tried to make some sense of what had just happened. Hockey seasons and springtime playoff voyages always begin with so much hope, and the end always comes so abruptly. It can be like watching a beloved relative - one who was never sick a day in their life - suddenly succumb to a swift and strong disease that seemed so minor and innocuous when first diagnosed. 

The Caps weren't at all expecting to be packing up their gear for the summer and saying goodbyes to each other so early last spring. After rolling up 56 wins and 120 points, it seemed like 2016 would be the spring in which they'd finally make a deep run, maybe even advance to the Cup final for the first time in nearly two decades. The suddenness of the ending only added to the sting. The Caps won the first game of the series, and less than two weeks later it was all over. Three straight losses and one more a few days later - all by a single goal - did them in. Thirty-six hours after a sudden death overtime loss simultaneously became a sudden death season loss for the second time in as many springs, many Caps struggled to understand how such a promising season had come unraveled so swiftly, and why.

A veteran player with his name previously etched on the Cup with another team was able to lend some perspective. 

"I think you learn as you go through the league - especially when you're playing on good teams that do have realistic chances of winning - every year that goes by is a lost opportunity and every year every guy in the room gets a little bit older," said Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik on that grim morning last May. "You really don't get a lot of realistic chances in this league with how much player movement there is. 

"You hear guys talking about it every year. With all the free agency stuff, you never have the same group from year to year. That's disappointing, because the group we had here this year really got along well and had a pretty good bond. That's disappointing, but just realizing that we probably lost to the team that was probably the best team in the league down the stretch.

"All four games we lost were by one goal, and two of them in overtime. I'm sure guys have some regrets, and there are obviously a lot of things we could have done differently as a team and individually. But I think it's encouraging and even a little bit more frustrating at the same time, knowing that we were that evenly matched with the team that could potentially win the whole thing."

And of course, Orpik was right. Pittsburgh did go on to win the whole thing. 

Orpik is also right about teams being different every year. The 2016-17 Capitals weren't drastically different than that '15-16 bunch. Jason Chimera and Mike Richards moved on, replaced by Brett Connolly and Lars Eller. But next season's edition of the Capitals will certainly be drastically different. And it's hard to fathom next year's group improving upon this season's 118-point performance. 

This spring marks the ninth time in the last 10 seasons the Caps have reached the Stanley Cup playoffs. They've won three Presidents' Trophies and seven division titles over that span, but they've won only five playoff series. 

That morning last May, there was a fair amount of talk about the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, still 11 months off on the horizon at that point. When a season ends in abrupt disappointment, it's normal to look ahead and think and talk of what can be better, what can be different. The unfortunate aspect is that before you can actually get there and make things better and make things different, you have to go through another grueling 82-game regular season grind. And you can't just "go through it;" you have to play well enough over that span to earn your way into one of those 16 playoff berths in order to atone, to redeem. 

As the Panthers and the Islanders and others will tell you, that's not a given.

Preparation for the 2016-17 Caps season was very much unlike that of previous campaigns. With the World Cup of Hockey going on in Toronto throughout the month of September, Caps coach Barry Trotz and several of Washington's key players were in Canada for that tournament as well, leaving a shell of a team to go through the early days of training camp. Slowly, as their World Cup teams were eliminated, players trickled back to the District and continued to get ready for the NHL season, which opened for Washington right where the previous season ended five months earlier, in Pittsburgh. 

The Caps opened the season with a shootout loss to the Pens, but still managed to get out to a seemingly strong 8-2-1 start. But even though the results were positive, the Caps were also keenly aware that they weren't playing to the ceiling of their capabilities. Washington followed that strong start with a very ordinary 5-4-2 stretch in its next 11 games. Pittsburgh, Columbus and the New York Rangers all got out to even stronger starts and Philadelphia started a 10-game winning streak in late November, leaving the Caps in fifth place in the Metropolitan Division.

"I think it's pretty fair to say that no one is ecstatic about where our game is presently," said Caps right wing Justin Williams in November. "It's just been 'okay.' And 'okay' is certainly not 'okay' for this team. 

"We've gotten by because we're a good team, and we're talented and we care. But we haven't seemed to put it all together yet. The good news is we have time, and we have guys in here who care about rectifying it." 

One of those guys in there who cares about rectifying it is Caps goalie Braden Holtby. When Washington sleepwalked its way through a 4-2 loss to the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Nov. 26 - a defeat that wasn't as close as the score would indicate - Holtby offered a terse and honest assessment after the game. 

"We didn't look like the Washington Capitals out there at all," said Holtby. "I think we got embarrassed by a young team. That's not acceptable in our culture here. We have to be better, every one of us. It was embarrassing." 

A home ice whitewashing at the hands of the New York Islanders followed. Then there was a shootout setback at the hands of the Lightning in Tampa Bay. A quarter of the season was gone, and there were few signs of the dominant team the Caps had been throughout then entirety of the previous campaign. 

"I think we haven't played to our best ability on a consistent basis," said Caps right wing T.J. Oshie at the time. "You've seen flashes of it. And I think you've seen flashes of how we definitely don't want to play. 

"I think we know what our identity is, but we haven't gotten to that on a consistent basis. There has been some good and some bad; more ups and downs to start the year this year than last year. But maybe that's a good thing, that we're learning and growing as a team together." 

The Caps managed a 3-2 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres on Dec. 5. Two nights later, they opened up a 3-0 lead over the Boston Bruins. But in the middle of that game, the Caps went more than 26 minutes without a shot on goal, and they surrendered three third-period goals to Boston, sending the game into overtime. Nicklas Backstrom's overtime game-winner rescued the two points from the fire and extended the Caps' modest winning streak to two games. 

Immediately after that Boston game, the Caps called a closed-door, players only team meeting. Media was kept waiting outside the room until the Caps had finished venting. As is usually the case with such meetings, content was kept quiet and private once the media was allowed into the room after the game.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's fairly clear that whatever was said in that room that night has had a positive and lasting effect on this team. And in a perfect world, that effect will extend for another couple of months. 

"It gave us a huge boost," says Oshie of the closed-door meeting. "I wasn't playing at the time. I was in the room for the meeting, and I mentioned just a couple of words. I just kind of gave them a look at what it looks like on TV or what it looks like from up top. I don't think I need to say exactly what was said, but when you hear your teammates talk, it reconfirms how much each guy cares, how much we all care about each other and how much we care about making this a winning organization. 

"Our coaches do an outstanding job giving us the game plan, giving us the right information to win games, but when it comes down to it, it's the guys in the room that have to go out and perform, have to win the game and have to approach every day with a winning attitude and we just weren't doing that. We've had this kind of a high, this winning feeling in here. And even though we were winning some games, it just didn't feel like it did before in here. I think we were missing that feeling. And after that meeting, eventually we got it back." 

There were still some hurdles to overcome. 

A struggling Andre Burakovsky was scratched for a few games in mid-December. Newcomer Brett Connolly and veteran winger Daniel Winnik were still occasional scratches themselves as the Caps continued to look at either Zach Sanford of Jakub Vrana, a pair of heralded rookies. 

A 4-3 loss to the Islanders in Brooklyn immediately after the NHL's holiday break left the Caps with three losses in their last four (1-2-1), and it was at that point that Caps coach Barry Trotz finally settled on a lineup that would prove to be quite potent. Vrana was reassigned to Hershey, and for the first time since mid-October, Connolly and Winnik were installed in the lineup at the same time. That bunch poured a season-high 44 shots at the New Jersey nets in a Dec. 29 game at Verizon Center, only to fall 2-1 in a shootout. But it would be the last time the Caps tasted defeat for a couple of weeks. 

A nine-game winning streak followed. All four lines were contributing to the attack, sometimes all on the same night. Goals seemed to be falling from the sky and into the opposition's net. No team seemed able to stop the Caps, and when Washington broke in mid-February for its bye week, it did so with a remarkable 26-4-3 record over its previous 33 games. 

"Being satisfied is a sickness in this league," says Williams, when asked about the meeting, "and it's something that you want to kick right out of the room. You always want to be striving to get better.

"Early on in the season, we were just okay. And okay is not okay for us. For this team and for a lot of guys in this room, we're not quite sure we will be together again next year. So you seize the opportunities and you don't take anything for granted. I think that was a big sticking point with us." 

"I think it was big," says Holtby of the meeting. "It seemed like at the start of the year, we were just naturally thinking about the playoffs already and not the process that we needed to go through to get there and to be ready for them. I think after that meeting, everyone realized that we had some work to do." 

And here we are.

The Caps went 40-12-5 record after that meeting. They were 26-2-2 once Trotz settled on a permanent group of a dozen forwards and all 12 of those players were healthy, dressed and in the lineup on a given night. After being mired in the middle of the pack in goals for and both special teams at the end of the season's first quarter, the Caps finished in the league's top seven in all of those categories. They set a franchise record for fewest goals against.

And it all came together in the wake of a couple of ugly performances in late November and early December.

"Going back to that game and the way we won it," says Orpik, "I think when you're a younger and more inexperienced team, you fall into a trap where you tend to look more at the results than how you're playing and how you're getting to the result. And I think that good teams and teams that are experienced know that you can't get away with that in the playoffs. 

"There were a lot of times last season where we had a lot of comebacks where they were just kind of games that were up for grabs and we didn't really have control over them.

"I think this season, we feel that when we're playing well, even when we're tied or down by a goal, we feel like we have control over the game and have much better control over the outcome. I think that's the difference. Last year, maybe out of a false sense of confidence, we focused on the results we were getting. We overlooked how we were actually playing. When you do that and you get to the playoffs, there are no bad teams in the playoffs, and sometimes that catches up to you." 

A new season starts on Thursday night in the District when the Caps host the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 1 of their opening round series in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Like all playoff seasons, it opens with a mixture of anxiety and excitement, and the knowledge that it can all come to a screeching halt quickly. But the Caps are coming in on an 11-2-1 roll, and in the Washington room, the feeling of winning is like a high. The Caps need that feeling; they have to have it. And the only way to get it, is to win.

After winning 40 of their last 59 games, they'll try to win 16 of the next 28 games, at most. 

"Without really thinking about it," says Oshie, "you just come to the rink and you expect that doing your job is going to be enough for the team to win the game, and you're going to get that feeling again. It's a feeling that no matter what happens on the ice - like penalties or tough holes or whatever it is - you never feel like you're out of the game. You never feel like you're going to lose. And it happens. We've lost a couple of games; we haven't played our best every game. But you still get that feeling that we're all going to come together and win. It's just such a great atmosphere and a fun atmosphere to be a part of."

Like life itself, that feeling won't last forever. The NHL salary cap says so. But this Caps team has a chance to do something special, something it hasn't done before. Something it wasn't quite able to finish last season. 

"Thinking of the basketball Tar Heels," says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner, of the NCAA hoops team that won a national championship earlier this month after failing to do so last year. "They're the 'redeem team.' We would like to be along those lines. 

"Obviously, we didn't make it as far as they did the year before, but we had a lot of expectations from ourselves and from a lot of outside people. So we'd like to get another chance at it, and to show people that we are the real deal."

"The writing is on the wall," says Holtby. "We are not going to have this group again and this is as good of a chance as we are going to get. We might be on good teams again, but it's hard to get better than this. We are going to have to take advantage of it."  

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