A referendum on Capitals’ heart
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.
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.