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Coaches Room

Capitals' early success total team effort

Carlyle credits fourth line, Carlson for Washington's climb to top of standings

by Randy Carlyle / Special to

The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2019-20 season by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. David Marcoux, Rob Zettler, Rob Cookson and Randy Carlyle will take turns providing insight. 

In this edition, Carlyle, winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman in 1980-81 and former coach of the Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs, examines the Washington Capitals and their early success this season.

Now that all 31 teams are past the 30-game mark and heading toward the halfway point of the regular season, there's a large enough sample size to confirm or shift opinions.

One of those opinions that's being confirmed is that the Washington Capitals are again a strong Stanley Cup contender.

With a record of 24-6-5, they are first in the NHL heading into their game against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center on Friday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, MSG+, NBCSWA, NHL.TV). The Capitals have experienced a Cup-winning season recently, in 2017-18, and they seem to have a strong grasp of what style is required day in and day out to give them the best chance of doing it again.

Washington is big and strong and can play any way its opponent wants. Captain Alex Ovechkin is the player who clearly drives the bus but you also see that the Capitals' roster has other players eager to share in the responsibility, like forwards T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom.

Video: WSH@TBL: Oshie sneaks wraparound past Vasilevskiy

When I look at the Capitals, I see a team that has everyone slotted in a position where players are able to meet expectations without having to go extended periods playing over their heads.

One of the interesting storylines with them this season is the development of a strong fourth line. I see Nic Dowd, Brendan Leipsic and Garnet Hathaway bringing energy and scoring depth. Hathaway has five goals this season, Leipsic has three and Dowd -- who has eight points in 17 games -- has two. Historically, many fourth-line players are robust and physical, but this fourth line is not really that. It is a group that is about energy and is trustworthy defensively while supplying a strong forechecking game.

This kind of contribution should never be underestimated for a team. It's a complete line, with multiple elements. Leipsic is quick and gets in on the forecheck smartly. Hathaway is a very effective banger and Dowd is a quality defensive center, a right-shot who's good on face-offs. It's a great mix that has also found a way to make contributions and I can tell you that it's a huge benefit for a coaching staff to find a fourth line it can trust and one that works like this one.

It also provides a big lift within a team, a big morale boost that enhances value throughout a locker room.

A more talked-about development with the Capitals is the season defenseman John Carlson is having. Carlson, who has 45 points (12 goals, 33 assists) in 35 games, is on pace for more than 100 points, and is delivering on a nightly basis in a very dynamic fashion.

Video: BOS@WSH: Carlson one-times feed from Backstrom

Personally I'm not surprised by it, given a conversation I remember having with then-Capitals general manager George McPhee about how valuable Mike Green was to their team.

Green was hurt at the time and our conversation was about how much they missed him. A year or two after that, in the offseason of 2015, Green left the Capitals and signed with the Detroit Red Wings as a free agent. I remember that surprising me a bit, and it told me that though Green was a very important player, the Capitals must have been very confident they'd be OK because they had Carlson as a rising talent, almost waiting in the wings to be a go-to guy, so to speak.

Washington, with 122 goals in 35 games, is scoring at a clip of 3.48 goals per game. They have a proven scoring attack and to me, that's really never going to be an issue with them. They can score and they know it. It's the other things that need to be done, like sacrificing a little of that scoring to be better defensively and realizing that it's a winning mindset.

As far as being in top spot in the League at this point of the season, how do the Capitals keep their foot on the gas pedal?

That will not be up to the coaching staff. The coaches steer things, but the gas and the brakes are pushed by the players. Most of what goes on with a team is player-driven. On a successful team like the Capitals, the players have accepted responsibility for their position and for expectations and it's clear they're enjoying it and having fun, and that their leaders are reliably driving the energy and the work ethic that's required night in and night out over a lengthy season.

When you have that, when you see the belief and the commitment to do what's necessary on a daily basis, it's a good feeling for a coaching staff.

But don't mistake a good feeling for satisfaction. In pro sports, you can never really be satisfied where you are halfway through a season. Many things can and will happen and there are always momentum swings that seem impossible to control at times.

Video: Korpisalo pitches shutout as Jackets defeat Caps, 3-0

The St. Louis Blues, who were last in the NHL on Jan. 3 but went on to win the Stanley Cup, should be an example to everyone that anything can happen.

How many playoff upsets are in the cards this year? It should be a motivating factor for everyone involved, that you never take anything for granted. You work your hardest to maintain consistency and focus on maintaining your own level. It's the best use of your time and energy, because you can't control other players or teams. You control what you can do, which gives you the best chance for success.

It's what I see the Capitals doing so far.

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