WASHINGTON—So you think you know the Washington Capitals? Alex Ovechkin is exclusively a goal-scoring machine and the leader of a potent power play. Tom Wilson is the tough guy and John Carlson is their offensive-minded defenseman, right?
That’s been a pretty effective formula over the past several years for the Capitals. But they didn’t get to be Stanley Cup champions by being completely predictable. And they won’t repeat if they don’t demonstrate some versatility.
You probably would have exhausted more than a dozen guesses before settling on veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik as the player who would score the game-winning goal 1:48 into overtime Saturday, giving Washington a 4–3 victory and a 2–0 lead in their first-round playoff series against Carolina.
You might not have expected Ovechkin to have two assists and no goals, or Wilson to have a goal and no penalty minutes. And you might be surprised to know that the Capitals held off the scrappy Hurricanes despite coming up empty on four power plays (including one five-minute man advantage).
“That’s what the playoffs all come down to,” Capitals head coach Todd Reirden said, “getting scoring from different sources, and leaders coming through at different times.”
It’s easy to forget just how perilous the Capitals’ march to the Stanley Cup was last spring. They lost the opener of three of their four postseason series, and needed heroics from unsung players like Devante Smith–Pelly and Lars Eller to claim the title.
It doesn’t appear that this year’s path will be any easier. But the Capitals are collectively a year older, wiser—and apparently more resilient.
On Saturday, they jumped to a quick lead for the second straight game, only to see the Hurricanes—making their first playoff appearance in a decade—roar back to tie the game twice. They might not have held serve at home without the 38-year-old Orpik, who has notched 18 regular-season goals in 16 NHL seasons (two this year).
“You ask anyone on our team who they’d be happiest to see score an overtime goal, and they’d probably say Brooks Orpik,” goaltender Braden Holtby said.
Very few teams ever win a championship without players stepping outside their comfort zones, at least temporarily.
Ovechkin won his record eighth career Maurice “Rocket” Richard award this year with 51 regular-season goals, and added one in the Capitals’ 4–2 Game 1 victory. But he’s been more of a playmaker so far in this series—and his team has needed him to be one.
“Obviously, when he gets the puck, he draws a lot of attention,” teammate T.J Oshie said. “Not just from one or two guys, but sometimes three or four.”
Ovechkin’s brightest moment Saturday came midway through the first period. First, he scuttled a 2-on-1 break by the Hurricanes. He then crunched Carolina’s Brett Pesce into the side boards to gain possession, raced up ice and slid a gorgeous pass to Nicklas Backstrom for the game’s first goal.
“That gets everyone energized,” Reirden said.
Teams establish an identity during the regular season. They don’t abandon it during the playoffs, but they need to adapt on the fly—especially in a best-of-seven series, when there are few secrets and adjustments can be just as important as talent.
Backstrom, Washington’s first-line playmaker, scored twice in the opener but also dove to block two late shots after the Hurricanes had pulled within 3–2.
The Capitals still have plenty of room for improvement—especially with more talented teams potentially awaiting them in the later rounds. But it’s worth noting that that they fell into an 0–2 hole in the first round against Columbus last year and went on to win the Cup.
A 2–0 lead, no matter how shaky, is imminently preferable.
“We’ve got a lot of experience with the guys in here,” Oshie said. “Those momentum swings—that’s what we’ve got to get away from.”