On more than a couple of occasions this season, young defenseman Karl Alzner said after a game that the Washington Capitals were “soft.” Alzner and his teammates admittedly let opponents get away with too much.
In hockey, that kind of assessment is an indictment. Being soft is almost as bad as lacking effort, another problem that has plagued the Capitals. But Wednesday night, in a 4-1 victory over the New York Rangers, they adopted a hard-nosed style.
In the process, Washington might have also discovered a blueprint for winning.
“All through the lineup, guys were just playing tough — not letting guys get free passes, even in front of our net, playing hard on their cycle — stuff like that,” winger Troy Brouwer said. “When you play tough, when you play hard, it makes it hard for the other team to create anything.”
The Rangers couldn’t create much, and their five-game winning streak came to an end thanks to a hard-hitting Caps team that did to New York what it did a week earlier to the Nashville Predators.
In both games, knocking opponents into the boards was the norm as the Capitals pulled off the rare trick — at least this year — of being the tougher team.
“Finishing their hits and going to the net hard and winning the one-on-one battles, and the guys did it,” coach Dale Hunter said.
During their previous two games — a 4-3 shootout loss at the New Jersey Devils and a 4-2 loss at the Buffalo Sabres — Washington was listless in long stretches. Defenseman Roman Hamrlik said they were “sleeping” a bit against Buffalo in the first game after the Christmas break.
That all changed against the Rangers.
“We just have to be mentally ready, I think. … That’s the way we’re supposed to play,” Hamrlik said. “We want to be the hardest team to play against — especially in our building.”
The Capitals get a chance to avenge a couple of bad losses to the Sabres when Buffalo visits Friday. Then comes a New Year’s Eve matchup at the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets. Neither of those teams packs quite the punch the gritty Rangers do, which means the Caps could impose their will even more.
But the trick is managing to repeat the same effort as Wednesday.
“It’s a mindset,” grinding forward Matt Hendricks said. “Checks aren’t easy to do, hits aren’t easy. It takes a toll on your body. But for this team to be successful, those are the things we have to do.”
It’s a different philosophy for a team that used to run opponents out of the rink with high-tempo play and lots of goals. But under Hunter, the Caps intend to be a grind-it-out group.
And being “the hardest team to play against” isn’t just about dishing out hits. It’s about blocking shots and consistency of effort and intensity.
In that way more than anything else, the Caps might have figured out Wednesday what they need to bring in order to improve.
“We’ve got to play like that every night. You can’t just do one game,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “If you’re going to climb the standings, you’ve got to make sure you do it every night.”