ARLINGTON, Va. -- The early turning points in the Washington Capitals' "how did they get here" story happened approximately three months ago.
It was then, with roughly a quarter of the regular season left, that coach Barry Trotz held a team meeting to challenge the players to be tougher, to win more battles, to find another level. Trotz told them they didn't win when it mattered most because they didn't work hard enough. He reminded them if nothing changed, they'd have another disappointing Stanley Cup Playoffs.
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"It was kind of a look-in-the-mirror moment," defenseman Matt Niskanen said.
It was also around that time -- the exact dates are unclear -- when the Capitals were battling for first place in the Metropolitan Division, that the players and coaches went about sorting out the defensive issues that were plaguing them.
They were issues that led to a 7-1 loss at the Chicago Blackhawks on Feb. 17, a 5-1 loss at the Columbus Blue Jackets on Feb. 26, a 4-0 loss at the Anaheim Ducks on March 6, and a 3-1 loss at the Los Angeles Kings two days later.
"We just knew there was another level we could get to," Trotz said.
They've gotten to it. They might have even reached levels they didn't know they could.
The Capitals are two wins away from winning their first Stanley Cup, leading 2-1 in the best-of-7 series against the Vegas Golden Knights going into Game 4 at Capital One Arena on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS), because they're winning battles, they're playing smart and aggressive, and their play without the puck has arguably never been better.
All of those were on display in Games 2 and 3 against Vegas. Washington won 3-2 in Game 2 and 3-1 in Game 3 by stifling Vegas' attack, slowing them down by dominating the neutral zone and forcing a team that wants to go north-south into going east-west, leading to turnovers.
Video: Caps goalie Braden Holtby on his role in a Game 3 win
The Capitals' commitment to defense was evident by their 26 blocked shots in Game 3, including 15 in the first period. Vegas attempted 62 shots on Saturday; 22 got to goalie Braden Holtby. The only goal Vegas scored was off a turnover by Holtby that had nothing to do with defensive zone coverage.
It was similar to how the Capitals played in Games 3-6 against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference First Round, all wins, and throughout their second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was almost identical to how they played in Game 6 and most of Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference final, when they didn't allow a goal and won the series.
"The thing about defending is if you defend well, you have the puck more, you get it back sooner, and that's when we're at our best," Niskanen said. "I think guys bought into it and it's helped us. We got the gist of it then. He challenged us to be better without the puck because he knew it was going to help us overall. Guys have bought into that, and it's working."
The meeting about toughness was essentially Trotz testing his players' manhood and will. He used examples of Washington players being beaten to pucks and outmuscled by smaller players on rival teams, Niskanen said.
"There was a raised voice and a clear message," center Lars Eller said. "He didn't have to raise his voice a whole lot and have a whole lot of emotion, but just the fact that he did it to some level, that made the meeting different."
It was jarring to hear, but important nonetheless.
"I think it just gave me an opportunity to be honest with myself," Niskanen said. "I think that happened with a lot of guys. Maybe some guys it went right over their head, but for the guys who have been here the longest, those are the guys that said, 'He's right here, we've got to find another level.'"
Video: Kan Daneyko dissects Capitals' big Game 3 win
They found it by figuring out the defense. To do that, the players and coaches had to get on the same page. They weren't at the time.
"There were words and terms being thrown around that I don't think reflected the idea that they wanted to implement," Eller said. "We were really more of a zone defensive coverage team than a man-on-man coverage, but we thought we were more man-on-man for a long time."
The confusion created holes in the coverage.
"We just talked about having numbers and layers, and making it difficult," Trotz said. "A lot of the man-on-man coverages you see get broken down, and there are big gaps, and we just wanted to make sure that we didn't have gaps. … We wanted to have levels of insulation. We wanted to insulate certain areas of our game and we did it."
They finished the regular season by going 12-3-0 in their final 15 games, allowing 2.29 goals per game, down from the 2.97 they were allowing through 67 games, when they were 37-23-7.
They're 14-8 and are allowing 2.55 goals per game in the playoffs, including 1.80 in their past five games (nine goals allowed), with four wins.
"The coaches gave us a better message of exactly what we need to do in situations," Eller said. "When we got that nailed down, there was no more uncertainty or doubt in our game."
Video: Hradek and Melrose on Capitals' Game 3 win
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