In order to avoid talking more about last night’s defeat, let’s talk about where this Caps team is headed in the bigger picture. It’s too annoying to think about Winnipeg still winning, and too nerve-racking to think about Washington’s remaining schedule. We’ll deal with both of those topics when we have to. We’re fans, right? We have that luxury.
As fans, we also get the luxury of speculating like politicians. We can mix and match whatever facts (or non-facts) and scenarios that will create the narrative we want, all while avoiding any repercussions. So, with that said, listen up. This Caps team is in good shape, and it all starts with stability and competence at the head coaching position. I can’t gush enough about Adam Oates. Bruce Boudreau was a competent bench-boss, but he couldn’t evolve his system to make the Caps play how they needed to play. The run and gun was great, but with no defensive responsibilities/effort, real playoff teams repeatedly laid waste to those Caps. The legendary Dale Hunter will always have my undying love, but he just isn’t the right personality for an NHL head coach, or the Caps coach, at least. He didn’t want to deal with all of the extra-curricular responsibilities that came with being a coach. Managing player relationships, addressing drama, evolving systems to fit personnel– he didn’t want to do any of that. He wanted his team to play fundamental hockey, avoid offense until absolutely necessary, and beat teams up. That’s awesome. I loved the idea, it just didn’t work with this Caps team.
Enter Adam Oates. After watching him help the New Jersey Devils reach the Cup finals last year, particularly by giving Ilya Kovalchuk a total rebirth, I couldn’t help but be giddy with excitement. He turned Steven Stamkos into a power play monster in Tampa the year before (thanks for that by the way, coach.) Also, he, along with Hunter, was a hero of my childhood. Being a Washington D.C. sports fan my whole life, I’m as pessimistic as they come, but I couldn’t be on the day Oates was hired. This is too easy to root for, I thought, and if the Sports Gods are going to burn me for it, screw it. (RGIII mania was in full swing, I was very emotional and easily sports-seduced… Don’t judge.)
Fast forward to where we are now, and the Caps are buzzing with confidence while looking like a threat again. They’re back to scoring with the best of them, but they also have retained some of the defensive teachings that this three year identity crisis has beaten into them. For me, the teams mental growth has been more important than their growth on the ice. These guys can play, they just have to rid themselves of the weak mindset that seems to plague all D.C. sports teams (pre-RGII). D.C. fans are well accustomed to watching their teams fold like cheap lawn chairs at the first sign of trouble. I’d argue that it’s the most frustrating characteristic for a fan to deal with. However, I feel like the never-ending controversy that this team has dealt with over the past three years, plus the addition of an extremely confident coach, has rid this Caps team of that weak mindset. They dealt with qualifying for the playoffs on the final day of the season last year, beating the defending champs on the road in a game seven, and enduring another grueling seven game series in New York (I’m still not ready to talk about that one.) They’ve dealt with multiple coaching and system changes, and constant “should the Caps blow it up” trade rumors. Mike Milbury himself has buried the Caps captain seven or eight times now. The Caps have earned their stripes as a contender.
Now look at the rest of the sports world. That Dallas Mavericks team that won the NBA championship two years ago… Huh? Everyone and their mother had that team buried, as far as it being a contender. The Baltimore Ravens just won the Super Bowl? No way, Flacco doesn’t have what it takes, and that team finds a way to implode year after year. The San Francisco Giants have won two out of three World Series? Uh, I thought that team wasn’t even going to make the playoffs last year.
That is how sports work. The Caps have been good enough for long enough that their break should be coming soon, if they want it. The Groundhog day-like identity crisis is coming to a close because of Oates. The window is still wide open. The point I’m cobbling together here is this: hey Caps, just keep making the playoffs. Never say die. I don’t know if it will be this year, or next, or ever, but I’d wager someone else’s pretty penny that one of these springs is going to payoff with a real run at the cup.