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Capitals proving to be more than 'one-trick pony'

by Adam Vingan

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Washington Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner sat at his locker Tuesday and was asked to participate in a word-association exercise.

The question: When others discussed the Capitals and how they've played over the past several seasons, what would come to mind?

"I think they probably would have said high-risk, high-reward," Alzner said. "Goal-scoring, maybe a little flashy, maybe streaky, not words that you really want to be called."

Alzner was then asked how he thought the Capitals would be regarded now.

"Now I would say hard-nosed, honest, hard, just the word 'hard,'" he said. "I think that's way better."

The NHL-wide perception of the Capitals under coach Barry Trotz has started to change. Their continuing transformation into a multifaceted team will be displayed Thursday in the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic against the Chicago Blackhawks (1 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA).

Though Trotz rarely opposed the Capitals while coaching the Nashville Predators, he was aware of their reputation.

They weren't physical. They relied too heavily on overpowering their opponents offensively. They didn't pose much of a threat in the crease or along the boards, areas that require more tenacity.

"A lot of people when I even got here told me we were a little bit of a one-trick pony," Trotz said. "Good offensively, good on the rush, good power play, not so good in a lot of other areas, but very good in those areas. What we tried to do as a staff, if we're going to be successful, we can't be a one-trick pony."

Washington still possesses game-breaking skill that can take over if necessary, but it has become more defensively adept without sacrificing that firepower.

The Capitals are scoring more goals and allowing fewer per game this season compared to last. Even-strength offense and puck possession have noticeably improved.

"I think it's the way that's shown the best defense and an equal offense," forward Eric Fehr said. "I think we've balanced it pretty well. Some years we've been all offense, some years we've tried all defense. I think this is kind of a happy medium."

Trotz has spoken often of Washington's need to be "comfortable when it's uncomfortable," which has slowly taken hold.

The Capitals, admittedly prone to feeling sorry for themselves in the past, have become more resilient, not allowing seemingly insurmountable deficits to affect their psyche.

As an example, Trotz pointed to the Capitals' 4-3 overtime loss to the New York Islanders on Monday, after they trailed 3-0 in the third period.

"We didn't have much game [Monday]," Trotz said. "Too many turnovers, just not enough compete, a little bit slow on pucks, poor decisions. We got it tied up. … We found a way to get a point in a different way, which didn't really happen very often in the past."

Low-scoring games that require an industrious "meat-and-potatoes" effort as defenseman Matt Niskanen described it have become easier to manage. It was something he said he never noticed playing against the Capitals in three-plus seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"Not in the past," he said.

The process is ongoing, and the Capitals will face a tough test on New Year's Day from the Blackhawks, who have been a model of consistency in winning the Stanley Cup twice in the past five seasons.

"We're learning to use all the tricks in the bag," Trotz said.

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