Washington Capital-izing on team-first approach
Newcomer T.J. Oshie was in the midst of describing how warmly he's been welcomed by the Capitals when Brooks Laich leaned over and gave the forward a big hug and peck on the cheek.
"Maybe a little too much," Oshie said, smiling.
"Well," Laich replied, "I pour it on and you take what you need."
Feel the love.
The Capitals are playing well and loose, a tight-knit group of players re-establishing themselves among the NHL's elite. At 29-7-3, following a 3-2 win at Boston on Tuesday night, Washington is off to a franchise-best start behind a balanced, deep and veteran-laden lineup that's capable of playing any type of style.
They've got scoring and they can play defense, ranking second in goals scored (124) and first in fewest allowed (85).
Alex Ovechkin leads the team with 21 goals, but the Capitals are also getting production from second-line center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who had a team-leading 37 points (13 goals, 24 assists). Goalie Braden Holtby is on a 17-0-2 run, four short of matching the franchise record Jose Theodore set in 2009-10 for most games without a regulation loss.
And if things get physical, the Capitals have enough big-bodied hitters to supply grit.
"I think we've been equipped and conditioned to play whatever game that's presented," second-year coach Barry Trotz said. "Sometimes I'd like us to come over and dictate the game a little more. But we sort of say, 'Ok, well, this is what kind of game it's going to be and let's deal with it.' That's a sign, I guess, of maturity as a group."
Laich sees a distinct difference in the team's dynamic and how it relates to Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
"They have a lot of trust in their teammates. Maybe in the past they thought they had to do everything themselves because they're tremendously talented," Laich said. "But I think they're now great at executing their role and trusting other guys on the team to execute theirs."
Ovechkin agrees, and credits general manager Brian MacLellan for adding veteran depth to the roster.
"We learned as an organization. That's the most important thing," Ovechkin said. "It's all about the chemistry. It's all about connecting to each other and believing in each other."
Last summer, the Capitals acquired Oshie in a trade with St. Louis and signed Justin Williams. A year earlier, they signed the Penguins' defensive tandem of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen.
Backstrom provides a cautious assessment when referring to this team as the most complete he's played for in Washington. The question is how that translates into the postseason for a franchise that's not advanced past the second round since being swept by Detroit in the 1998 Stanley Cup Final.
"That's why I'm a little shouldn't say too much because we haven't had the playoff success," Backstrom said. "Hopefully, we can learn from our mistakes from previous years."
Last postseason was another disappointment. After showing resolve in eliminating the New York Islanders in Game 7 of their first-round series, the Capitals collapsed in blowing a 3-1 series lead to the New York Rangers.
Trotz hopes that lesson lingers.
"There was a lot of hurt in our locker room after that series," Trotz said. "I said to the players, 'Just remember the pain that you feel right now. I want you to feel that all next year."'
Washington is tied with Los Angeles in having won a league-leading five games when trailing after two periods, according to STATS. The Capitals were 2-18-3 last season. Washington has also overcome deficits of two or more goals three times this season. The Caps are 12-2-3 this season in games decided by one goal. Last year, they were 21-14-11. And they've not lost consecutive games in regulation since going 0-2 on March 11-13 last season. They're 38-10-4 since.
The Florida Panthers have surged atop the Atlantic Division standings by winning a franchise-best 10 consecutive games and improving to 16-3 in their past 19 following a 5-1 win at Buffalo on Tuesday. Goalie Roberto Luongo has allowed 10 goals in winning seven straight, including two shutouts.
The Sabres have lost five straight and sit 29th in the standings, just a point ahead of Columbus. Forward Matt Moulson has not scored in 27 games.
Points, Patrick Kane (Chicago), 59; Goals, Jamie Benn (Dallas), 24; Goals by defensemen, Brent Burns (San Jose) 16; Rookie points, Artemi Panarin (Chicago), 36; Save percentage (minimum 14 games), Michal Neuvirth (Philadelphia), 93.7.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Sabres at Winnipeg Jets on Sunday. Buffalo forward Evander Kane and defensemen Zach Bogosian travel to Winnipeg for first time since being traded in multi-player deal that included defenseman Tyler Myers last February.