The Capitals spent their regular season mired in an 82-game identity crisis. Playing what was at times by name only a more "defensive" style of hockey, their day-to-day playoff chances often appeared as murky as their game plan. Miraculously, however, the Capitals have found their stride, and their timing could not be better.
"It took 60 games for Dale Hunter to get his system in there," Mike Knuble told reporters after the Caps' Game 5 win in Boston. "It's very conservative --much more so than what we were doing here before. Now we've been a strong defensive team."
For the better part of two seasons we've heard tell, from Caps coaches and players alike, of their metamorphosis. And as this season proved more than last, change does not come easy.
"It's tough," said Knuble. "We've got offensive guys who have made their careers playing offense and scoring big goals and now you're asking them to block shots and dump pucks out when they're so used to trying to make something happen. I think overall in this series why we've been successful is we've got, to a man, everyone buying in."
Though just five games into their 2012 playoff run, the commitment to "blue collar" or "simple" hockey is undeniable. They're clogging up shooting lanes and muzzling shots with sticks and bodies. The Caps currently average 22 blocked shots per game --the highest among any of their playoff teams since the lockout. And their sacrifice is paying off: the Caps have allowed a stingy average of two goals per game in their first five against Boston. Fifth-best among playoff teams this year and second only in the Ovechkin Era to last year's first round waxing of New York. More importantly though, their commitment to team and sacrifice has Washington up 3-2 in the best of seven series with the Bruins.
"We're going out there and playing a simple game," said Karl Alzner. "We're a team that's used to going out and run-and-gun and score lots of goals and trade chances. But we're different now. It's nice to play this way because it's a little more frustrating for people to play against."
It must be frustrating for the defending Stanley Cup champions to play against. Particularly when the third-most productive offense in the league is getting thwarted by a 22-year-old netminder (who spent all but seven games this season playing in the AHL) paired with a regular season below-league-average defense in front of him.
Now one win away from ousting the big bad Bruins, the Capitals are reveling in their new identity. As underdog. As simple blue-collar hockey. As a team who could pull out an improbable come-from-below victory without relying on their biggest names.
Game 5 underlined this beautifully as the likes of Jay Beagle, Mike Knuble, Troy Brouwer and Alexander Semin --now the Caps' most consistent goal scorer-- bested last year's Vezina and Conn Smythe winner.
"I think that's one of the things that's given us motivation: people counting us out," said Alzner. "We like to be the underdog actually. We enjoy having people not like us and not really expecting a whole lot from us."
Even the awkward growing pains from their rocky transformation seem to be paying off for the never-say-die Caps. After relinquishing a lead, the Capitals have only failed once in this series to reclaim it.
"That's the one thing I think the regular season helped us with," said Alzner of the Caps' ability to battle back after giving up a 2-0 lead in Game 5. "We started to grow a thicker skin and to know what it feels like to have a goal scored against you and still come back. You know, we've had some pretty tough losses this year and it's been frustrating and I think we're sick and tired of having that happen. We're ready to stay focused and play the simple game that we have to do to win."