A ref­er­en­dum on Cap­i­tals’ heart

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - THOM LOVERRO

You’ll prob­a­bly hear a few ref­er­ences dur­ing these Stan­ley Cup playoffs about Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals gen­eral man­ager

Brian MacLel­lan’s quote in Fe­bru­ary 2016 about the team’s win­dow “clos­ing” in two years.

This would be that sec­ond year.

“I view it as a two-year win­dow,” MacLel­lan told re­porters. “We’re go­ing for it this year, we’re go­ing for it next year, and then after that we’re eval­u­at­ing where we’re at.”

I know that MacLel­lan would love that quote back, but this was the sort of hon­esty that sup­pos­edly helped him con­vince owner Ted Leon­sis he was the right man to take over for fired long-time gen­eral man­ager Ge­orge McPhee.

MacLel­lan tried to hedge on that state­ment four months later. “I don’t know that the win­dow closes off, but it’s got to change be­cause money needs to be al­lo­cated to dif­fer­ent play­ers and that some­times squeezes out other play­ers,” he said. “The sit­u­a­tion will change after next year.”

But it’s out there, and if things go south for the Cap­i­tals in these playoffs, start­ing Thurs­day night against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Ver­i­zon Cen­ter, you’ll hear more win­dow ref­er­ences in Caps cov­er­age than spon­sor­ships on lo­cal sports talk ra­dio.

Another win­dow, though, may have fi­nally opened, and with it an ac­knowl­edge­ment of what has truly kept the Alex Ovechkin-era Cap­i­tals from ad­vanc­ing be­yond the Eastern Con­fer­ence semi­fi­nals in nine dif­fer­ent tries.

Not lack of depth. Not a lack of goal­tend­ing. Not a lack of scor­ing — no, not any one of the rea­sons fans hang their los­ing ban­ners on to ex­plain the an­nual rite of spring dis­ap­point­ment.

No, what’s held the Cap­i­tals back is a lack of heart.

Ad­mit­ting that may be part of the solution: It takes heart to rec­og­nize what was miss­ing.

The Cap­i­tals were the best team in the NHL this sea­son, win­ning their sec­ond straight Pres­i­dent’s Tro­phy with a 55-19-8 record. With the home team ad­van­tage, they are the fa­vorites go­ing into to the playoffs to fi­nally hoist the fran­chise’s first Stan­ley Cup. But we’ve heard all that be­fore. What may be dif­fer­ent this time around is the recog­ni­tion of what has gone wrong in the past — what, for in­stance, al­lowed them to blow a 3-1 leads in the Eastern Con­fer­ence semi­fi­nals to the New York Rangers two years ago, or any of the other early play­off ex­ists.

Long-time Cap­i­tals play-by-play voice Joe Ben­i­nati ac­knowl­edged re­cently in an in­ter­view on 106.7 The Fan that the book on the play­off Cap­i­tals had been that once you hit them in the mouth, they might back down. He made that ref­er­ence to a ques­tion about the dif­fer­ence be­tween this ver­sion of a great Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals reg­u­lar sea­son squad and pre­vi­ous great reg­u­lar sea­son teams.

This one, he said, seems dif­fer­ent. He wasn’t alone in this ad­mis­sion. Cap­i­tals coach Barry Trotz said as much after a March 4-2 home loss to the Dal­las Stars when he spoke of the “room” when asked how the team could avoid fall­ing into their fa­mil­iar pat­tern of poor starts that has plagued past teams and had briefly reared its ugly head after the bye week this sea­son.

“It’s got to come from the room — let’s get go­ing,” he said. “I think we have a lot of con­fi­dence, but maybe some­times a lit­tle bit too much con­fi­dence against teams.”

When I asked Trotz if he thought the “room” had changed since he took the job three years ago, his ad­mis­sion that the cul­ture of “win­ning” has in­deed changed over that time was an ac­knowl­edge­ment that there was a need for change – that some­thing was miss­ing.

“We have learned some lessons,” he said. “I think our room is real strong. I think our cul­ture has grown from year one to two to three. It’s just changed, the cul­ture has changed over the course of time. Win­ning just doesn’t hap­pen, you have to cre­ate that cul­ture, that re­sponse ... I think it is a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent. It’s grown. You have to build it, grow it, and I think our lead­er­ship, our staff and or­ga­ni­za­tion has done that.”

Not long after that loss, as the Cap­i­tals floun­dered go­ing 5-6-1 over 12 games after the break, they held a team meet­ing, some things were said, and then they fin­ished the sea­son strong, win­ning 11 out of their fi­nal 14 games.

I think Trotz has a good sense of the room this year.

It may be a room fi­nally ready for cham­pagne and tro­phies.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals have not ad­vanced past the Eastern Con­fer­ence semi­fi­nals in nine dif­fer­ent tries in the Alex Ovechkin era. The Cap­i­tals open the Stan­ley Cup playoffs on Thurs­day at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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