Capitals games, you may have noticed, have become quite a bit quieter. There are fewer sirens going off, fewer red lights flashing, fewer rafter-rattling celebrations by the Verizon Center crowd. For long stretches, it’s so silent you can almost hear a puck drop.
A year ago, when the Caps scored 46 more goals than any other club in the NHL, this would have been inconceivable. But a sluggish offensive start to the season, magnified by an eight-game losing streak in December, has turned a Maserati into a Volvo. Bruce Boudreau’s freewheeling juggernaut has suddenly developed a conscience, decided to devote more of its energies to goal prevention. Granted, blocking a slapshot isn’t as sexy as whipping a one-timer past the goalie - and doesn’t feel nearly as good - but it has just as much to do with winning games and championships.
And the Stanley Cup is all the Capitals have on their minds right now. They’ve won division titles, won the Presidents’ Trophy (for having the best regular-season record in the league). They haven’t come close to the Cup, though, despite their considerable talent, and something had to change. That thing could have been the coach or a sizable chunk of the roster, but owner Ted Leonsis and General Manager George McPhee thought it made more sense to tinker with the team’s strategic approach.
So far, it’s paying off. The Caps recently reeled off nine victories to seize the Southeast Division lead and position themselves well for the playoffs. Trade-deadline pickups Jason Arnott, Dennis Wideman and Marco Sturm have given them a boost, no question, but the club, as a whole, just looks much steadier. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t have won seven one-goal games during that stretch - or beaten the Devils 3-0 the other night in New Jersey despite getting only a dozen shots on Martin Brodeur.
Mike Knuble has seen this happen before. When Knuble was breaking in with Detroit in the late ‘90s, Scotty Bowman was in the process of turning the Red Wings into the kind of balanced, both-ends-of-the-ice team the Capitals are trying to become. Indeed, the Wings’ captain, Steve Yzerman, was much like the Caps’ captain, Alex Ovechkin: a prolific scorer who had enjoyed more individual than collective success and wasn’t known for his defensive prowess.
“But in order to win,” Knuble said after Monday’s practice at Kettler Iceplex, “Scotty got him to block shots, kill penalties, do it all.” And sure enough, Yzerman got his Stanley Cup - three of them, in fact.
“Young players who come into the league take such pride in scoring,” Knuble said. “But it’s not about scoring all the time and covering up your mistakes by scoring more. Games are tight, and you have to be great in your own end. Ultimately, you wake up. It comes with maturity. You see how other teams are successful. Why do they win? Because they play both ends. Defense takes hard work every night. It’s a commitment. Blocking shots is not fun. Paying the price to play well defensively doesn’t show up on everybody’s statistics. But it’s how you’re gonna win.”
It’s certainly how the Capitals have been winning. Only three clubs have allowed fewer goals than they have (176). The Caps haven’t ranked that high in that department in over a decade. Being more defensive-minded also might enable them to deal better with all the injuries that have hit them - Mike Green, Nick Backstrom (who has returned to the lineup) and now Ovie, who is out seven to 10 days, the club just announced, with a “nagging” injury.
You hate to lose offense, sure, but it’s not as catastrophic when you’re less reliant on it, when you’re winning, as often as not, because of solid goaltending and determined checking. As Boyd Gordon put it, “It took a while for everybody to get on board with it. But our goals-against has been great, and we know if we play that way we can win games.”
Air Coryell was fun to watch, but it never won a Super Bowl. Doug Moe’s Denver Nuggets teams were entertainingly high-scoring, too, but it didn’t bring them any rings. Think of the Capitals’ makeover that way. They want to leave behind more than a highlight reel.