Hockey is combat. Do not let anyone fool you. That means its success is subject to the effects of many intangibles. Let’s take, for instance, the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals’ series. By all rights, the Caps are the favorites. They should, based on improvement in order of magnitude from last season to this one, be whipping the Rangers’ butts. And yet, they aren’t. Why? I think it speaks to a psychological thread that defines the overall character of team play.
What the heck is that? Since it is my phrase, I’ll define it as the manner in which the team as a whole knows how to win. In the case of the Capitals, their psychological thread as it relates to team play is completely different this season than it was at this time last year. Back then, they had just completed transformation from a 6-13-1 start into the most prolific comeback since the Lockout. By the time they ended the season 15-4-1 in their final 20 games to qualify for their first Playoff berth in years, Coach Boudreau had infused the team with a new attitude. They worked hard, as underdogs, and battled for each win.
That transformation became the very mindset and effort that was their normal way of doing all things Hockey as individuals and as a team. In my line of work, it is like going into combat for the first time, choking down the fact that you harbor thoughts that you could die in this business. Then you are fired upon in anger by the enemy for the first time and make it through successfully, which steels your personal confidence. The more you go out to do it, the more you learn to manage your personal emotions and actions to get the mission done – you learn a different character that is the sum of your efforts with your unit. That character continues to evolve into a collection of reflex feelings for your environment that you can sense either are, or are not, present. Once you have that thread ingrained, you automatically feel uncomfortable when your sense of normal is not present. It is as if a program is recorded in your brain and you play it in the background as a measuring stick of normalcy every time you go out on mission.
What is interesting here is the Capitals’ overall team play character this season is not the same one as last year. They have been VERY successful in comparison, and they play games as a team differently. Just take a look at how they played against the Rangers during the 2008/9 regular season:
They went 3-0-1 against the Blueshirts
In three of those four games, the Rangers scored first
In their three wins, the Capitals scored a pair of goals, beginning no later than the 11th minute of the 2nd period, and including at least one PPG
These facts speak to four characteristics of the Capitals’ team play when they stepped out onto the ice to play the Rangers in the regular season:
1) The team fed on the energy required to play comeback Hockey
2) They regularly pushed the tempo of the game in order to score early in a period
3) They gained confidence and elevated their level of play as they scored on the power play
4) And they ended the regular season not having lost to the Rangers in regulation time
That is the sum of their overall team play character going into this series with New York, and it is their tape recording – the psychological thread – of what is normal for Washington success when it comes to skating with the Rangers.
In Game 1 of this year’s playoffs, the Capitals scored first, on the power play, and at 6:40 of the second period. Seeking that thread indicating team success, ‘normal’ for the team would have been a second goal within a few minutes of play. Instead, 1:09 later the first Rangers’ goals was scored. It was followed by two more, both from the League’s 29th ranked power play in the regular season. In the words of The Robot from Lost In Space, “That does not compute.” The mental thread that tells Washington they will win was sending up alarm bells because it was not working, they were then forces to alter their normal output on the ice, but still could not quite get to the “W.”
In Game 2, the Rangers got that early 2-on-1 goal and the Capitals scored nothing through two periods. By the third period, they are again completely off their game and pushed until they began trying too hard to make things happen. And all of this with Lundqvist at the other end of the ice, standing as a living, breathing structure of frustration after you pushed through a tight checking, hard-hitting forward and defensive corps.
So how in this battle that is the Stanley Cup, do the Capitals find their thread and Win? In combat, we tell Soldiers to snap out of it, take stock of their surroundings, focus on where the ‘enemy’ is weak, and attack. It is also that easy – and difficult – for the Capitals to do. They are still four Wins away from the second round and are most likely in need of five games to make that happen. A combination of Coach Boudreau and key player leadership with a healthy dose of team confidence in their ability to Win is needed to snap them out of their funk, orient them toward where the Rangers are weak, and focus their attack.