- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 23, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Washington Capitals had their fair share of “doubters.” That’s Matt Hendricks‘ word.

“Our fans were against us a little bit, the media was hard on us a little bit,” Hendricks said after the Caps clinched the Southeast Division and a playoff berth on Tuesday night. “Yeah, you, Whyno, I’m talking about.”

Me and almost everyone else in hockey. At 2-8-1 on Feb. 8 there was reason for doubt, same thing March 20 after a devastating loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins that put the Caps nine points back of the Winnipeg Jets.

But one man didn’t lose faith in the Caps: the rookie head coach whose positivity in the lean times so often ran opposite to the trend of losing.

“I didn’t have doubts about the way they could play and what I think it could turn into,” Adam Oates said. “The doubts I think came just because I was a first-year coach, and all the people out there that would jump on that. But I’m glad all the guys didn’t listen to them, or we fought through that.”

The Caps fought through a start that Oates called “lousy” and struggles that could’ve made a team crumble. Instead, they mobbed goaltender Braden Holtby at the conclusion of a 5-3 victory over the Jets that completed this improbable turnaround.

At the wheel was Oates, who didn’t reveal the slightest bit of negativity along the way.

“Whole coaching staff was positive. It it starts with him,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “We see it and we feel it. We never see the panic out there we never feel that they scream on us or something like we see before. It’s unbelievable when you see his emotion out there and you know his confidence.”

Oates espoused positivity publicly and, according to players, did the same in team meetings. It rubbed off.

“We never got too high, never got too low,” Hendricks said. “Even when we could have gotten low and down on ourselves with that start we had, we battled back. The coaches did a good job showing us positive clips and the reasons we’re getting better, and we did and we have.”

Ovechkin gave video coach Brett Leonhardt a shout-out, too. So much of Oates‘ coaching philosophy is about teaching, and a majority of that is done through video.

Oates has said time and again that he didn’t like to be yelled at by a coach or singled out, so he doesn’t do that in a mean-spirited way to his players.

“You can correct mistakes when they feel good about themselves because they’re more open to it,” he said. “Basically, simple human nature we’re talking about all the time.”

Oates doesn’t have a lot of NHL head coaching experience and was only an assistant for three years before he took over the Caps. But he showed through this season that he knows plenty about human nature and how to manage personalities and talent.

“I think he knows how to treat the guys,” Ovechkin said. “He was on the same page with us, he’s a very good player he knows exactly what we need. Sometimes when we need days off he gives us day off, or we just talk to him and he give us option. That kind of chemistry with him and relationship it’s working so I’m pretty happy he’s our coach.”

Oates kept Ovechkin happy amid a switch to right wing. He pushed the right buttons at the right times, everything from the signing and recall of defenseman Steve Oleksy to reuniting Ovechkin with center Nicklas Backstrom.

But keeping to the positives when the negatives were piling up was a huge part of Oates‘ effort.

“That was probably what we talked about the most: ‘Don’t push the panic button. Don’t show doubt. Just be professional and talk about it,’ ” Oates said. “Quite honestly, what else can you do? We were obviously not winning hockey games, and it was a very difficult situation, and you just try to talk the guys through it.”

Oates talked and led the Caps through the abyss, to a Southeast Division title in a shortened season when the odds were decidedly against them.

“Through all this, I felt like we were going to come around sooner or later, and it worked out just like we had kind of envisioned,” Hendricks said. “I think it’s that even keel that comes from the coaching staff straight down to our last player. It’s just a good feeling in here. We’re a confident group. We know we can play with anybody.”

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