Facing a rested team in their own building after traveling in from Dallas isn’t the ideal prescription for ending a six-game losing streak, but it’s not like the Capitals had any other options.
“We can’t start looking at it like it’s a six-game losing streak,” said Kolzig. “We need to have a short-term memory and learn from the mistakes we made and just move forward tomorrow.”
Willsie echoed those thoughts.
“It’s a new team but we’ll be well-prepared,” he said. “The coaches do a good job of getting us ready. After a tough loss tonight maybe we can take the feeling that we have right now and come out ready in the first five minutes [at Anaheim].”
The flight was quiet. Players slept, read, played cards or hand-held games, watched movies or talked in subdued tones. By the time the plane landed in Southern California, it was nearly 1 a.m. local time. Then there was the matter of a 30-minute bus ride to the hotel. It was late, to be sure. But for a group of guys accustomed to Eastern time, it felt even later.
The players collected their keys and headed to their rooms to get some comfortable sleep. There would be no morning skate for the Capitals on Friday, the day of the game against the Ducks.
At 10 a.m. on Friday, us media types grabbed a cab and headed to the Arrowhead Pond to catch Anaheim’s morning skate and talk to a few players. We also looked forward to renewing acquaintances with former Caps’ assistant coach Randy Carlyle, now the head coach of the Ducks; and former Caps’ assistant athletic trainer Tim Clark, now the head athletic trainer in Anaheim.
Once again, the Ducks media relations personnel couldn’t have been more helpful. We had long conversations with Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne and Carlyle. We also had a brief chat with Corey Perry, the Anaheim rookie who played his junior hockey under the tutelage of former Capital Dale Hunter with the OHL’s London Knights.
For the last decade, the Capitals have been accustomed to watching the silky smooth Niedermayer skating effortlessly and effectively for the New Jersey Devils. But the Norris Trophy-winning defenseman went west this season, signing a four-year free agent deal with Anaheim last summer. We asked him about the adjustment from east to west.
“With so many changes in the league and the new rules, it has been really hard to make a judgment on that,” he admitted. “It has been refreshing playing with a lot of new faces and in a lot of buildings that I didn’t see earlier in my career. I had new teammates and a new organization. I walked into camp and it was an experience I hadn’t had since I was a rookie, trying to meet everybody and learn how everything works.
Like many players getting their first taste of Western Conference play, Niedermayer finds the extra travel to be a bit burdensome.
“It is tougher, there is no question,” he said. “I knew that was going to be the case coming here. There are a lot of long flights. In Jersey, you are an hour or an hour and a half pretty much the whole time. Here, you are usually two-and-a-half or three hours most of the time coming back. You just have to get a little more rest. I don’t know, I’m still working on figuring that out.”
As with most of our visits to other cities and chats with opposing players and coaches, we’re curious as to how Ovechkin is perceived around the league and what teams and players plan on doing to try to contain him.
“I’m going to try to use my strengths like I do every night when I play against great offensive players,” Niedermayer told us. “Obviously, it’s going to be a challenge. He is a new guy that I haven’t seen. It will be exciting. It will be neat to see what he can do out there, and it will be a good chance for us to try to slow him down a little bit.”
Carlyle has the Ducks in the midst of a good run, one in which they are 8-1-1 in their last 10 at home. Anaheim is several points off the playoff race, but they’re playing good hockey and they’ve had most of the week off. Carlyle was asked what he did to make use of the off days his team had during the week leading up to the Washington game.
“We tried to lighten up a little bit this week,” he told us. “We actually had the players run a practice because we all know how much smarter the players think they are than coaches and management. We had them run some drills and we stood by the wayside and monitored the amount of work ethic that they put into it. It was pretty good. It was a lighter day and hopefully we got enough out of it that we prepared ourselves properly for this one tonight.”
Carlyle then discussed his coaching style in this, his first job as an NHL head coach.
“What I’ve tried to do is just be myself,” he said. “Sometimes that is not really appreciated in the manner that you would always like it. I believe that I am a demanding individual and I expect a lot from our players. One thing that we do expect is a work ethic. It is a privilege to play in the National Hockey League and because you are here doesn’t mean you are going to stay here unless you continue to work and make a commitment to what we are trying to do as a team.”
Finally, we asked the obligatory Ovechkin query.
“Obviously Ovechkin with 27 goals in an offensive force,” Carlyle stated. “He is the type of player who will try anything anywhere on the ice. Positionally, you better get to the middle of the ice because if you give him the space through the middle, I don’t think you are going to be able to catch him if he gets a step on you. [You need to] try to force him to the outside as much as possible and play the body on him. He plays the body, too. He is not a guy who comes out here plays around the outside. He gets the puck and he goes to the net and he will try to separate you from the puck when he has the opportunity to do so. You just better be aware of that.”
It’s a beautiful sunny day in Southern California and we don’t mind the long wait for a cab back to the hotel. It’s good to feel the sun on our faces. Once we do get back to the hotel, there’s time for some lunch and catching up on missed sleep.
We hop the bus to the arena at 5 pm, but most of the players and coaches have gone over earlier on their own. When we arrive at the arena and head to the press room for our pre-game meal, we find that we’re in for a rare treat: afternoon hockey. The east coast games are all well underway and we can watch any game we desire on the various strategically located televisions in the room.
The hockey keeps us well entertained until we ascend to press level. The first period isn’t much to write home about, but there are a few noteworthy items. Jeff Friesen, out for more than two months after undergoing sports hernia surgery, is back in the lineup. And Brian Sutherby has been elevated to a line with Friesen, breaking up the Capitals’ oft-dominant CBS Line. Late in the first period, Sutherby has a glorious scoring chance from down low in front of the net and only a fabulous save by Anaheim netminder J-S Giguere keeps the game scoreless.
As I did in Dallas, I go to the radio booth to join Steve Kolbe in calling the second period. Steve and I and the rest of those in attendance that night are treated to The Alex Ovechkin
showShow. He freight trains the formidable Vitali Vishnevsky. He takes a pass from Chris Clark and breaks away into the Ducks’ end, deking and beating Giguere. He schools veteran defenseman Ruslan Salei, spins off him and beats Giguere again. He hammers Francois Beauchemin in the corner, only to be whistled for a bogus charging call. All in a span of 20 minutes.
The two teams trade goals in the second and backup goaltender Brent Johnson plays an extremely solid game throughout. He is beaten on a terrific shot from Anaheim’s Joffrey Lupul, another one of those non-rookie youngsters who figures to be a star in this league for the next decade, and he gives one up to Travis Moen that he later admits he could have played better.
The Caps and Ducks go into overtime and once again, it’s Ovechkin who provides the pyrotechnics. He gets the puck from Zubrus near the Anaheim line, weaves through Niedermayer and then expertly uses Beauchemin as a screen to beat Giguere for his first NHL hat trick and two points for Washington. A few hats fly out onto the ice and a ripple of applause goes through the stands. The true hockey fans in attendance on this night know they have witnessed something extraordinary.
On the elevator down to the event level, I’m packed in with a group of local Anaheim media members. They are still shaking their heads and muttering superlatives about what they have just witnessed.
One guy says, “Wow. Imagine what he is going to be like when he fills out.” This comment causes me to chuckle inside. Those of us who watch him regularly know that Ovechkin has already “filled out” more than many players 10 years older than himself.
The mood downstairs is considerably lighter than it was the night before. The players, knowing a weekend off awaits them in Phoenix, are hurriedly showering and dressing. Those who take a minute to talk with the media are chided and ribbed. These guys are thrilled with the two points, but they don’t want to linger here. The idea is to get to Phoenix as quickly as possible. Saturday is an off day and Sunday’s skate doesn’t start until 3:30 p.m. For an NHL team to have a Saturday and a Sunday off on the same weekend doesn’t happen often. Being on the road, heading for another warm climate and staying at a spa and resort with three golf courses is a nice confluence of events. Not a minute is to be wasted.
As the players, coaches and staff settle onto the bus for the ride to the airport, assistant coach Dean Evason cracks, “It’s definitely the coaching.” After a pause he adds: “I am always working with that guy.”
The flight to Phoenix is quick and the guys are giddy. Fun and sun in the desert awaits.