Save for the first seven games, the Capitals' 2011-12 season was a long and often times frustrating trial of patience, confidence and conviction for those both inside and outside of the organization. The adaptation to Dale Hunter's conservative style of hockey wasn't especially easy for a group of players who had played their entire hockey careers in fifth gear. And though the change almost killed their playoff hopes, as they stand on the brink of a Game 7 meeting with the reigning Stanley Cup Champions, it appears to have only made them stronger.
"I think in the end it's changed our mentality and our game a lot," said defenseman Karl Alzner. "If we would have squeaked out a lot of these wins that we ended up losing we would have maybe had a little too much swagger going through. Now we know that we're not just going to cruise by any team. We know that we're definitely not going to be winning games 5-1, 4-1 in the playoffs. Every game is going to be tight. It just really brought us back down to earth and that's important for this team."
The Capitals took first place in the Southeast four years in a row, earning Presidents' Trophy honors in 2010, yet never advancing past the conference semifinals in those playoff runs. That streak ended this year as the team needed all but its final game to secure a spot in the playoffs.
"In the past, I know they've kind of cakewalked it through the regular season," said Joel Ward, who joined the team last summer after his seven goals and six assists in the Predators' 12-game playoff bid caught the attention of Caps general manager George McPhee. "I think the way we've done it this season is going to be helpful for games like tomorrow. Knowing that we've been battling in the trenches and we've been doing it for so long, especially towards the end of the year and just to make the playoffs."
Change can be a slow process. Often times it wasn't always obvious that a positive change was happening at all. As points came sparingly, individual stats sagged and losses began to pile up, the team could have given up on the season, their new coach and his new plan. But they didn't.
"In the beginning, we started off so well and then we went through that downward spiral," said Ward. "I thought that was kind of a slow process of chipping away at each other, at each individual and finally us as a team. Obviously everyone wants to be the hero but this is a team game and we gotta stick together as a group."
No one will tell you he wants to be on the ice and in the game more than Washington captain Alex Ovechkin. Yet when Hunter felt his time was best served on the bench in Game 4 as the Capitals' third and fourth liners fought to preserve their 2-1 lead, the captain took his diminished ice time in stride, and both he and his teammates rallied around the decision.
"He's always been a team player," said Alzner. "I think he's understanding that although he's our best player and our go-to guy, that there's times where other guys need to go and do it as well and chip away in order for him to come in and seal the deal. With all the ups and downs that have gone on with the entire team, he's been able to learn a ton about what makes a team better. Your best players are your best players but not always in a certain situation."
Though Ovechkin's missed shifts received more than enough attention from beyond the bench, Hunter's system hasn't just resulted in a few bruised egos. First liners to fourth liners are being called upon to get in front of pucks and block shots, and players like Alexander Semin are impressing teammates with contributions on both sides of the ice.
"He's been huge for us," said Beagle. "He's scored a lot of key goals and in the playoffs he's been laying down and blocking shots for us and playing more defensively sound. He's definitely bought into the system. He wants to win and he's doing whatever it takes to win."
Through their ups and many downs, the Capitals made significant strides this year, progress that has been evident in the six tight, one-goal games they've battled through to reach this point. There's a lighter, refreshing air of confidence in the locker room this postseason. This group of Caps doesn't care that they didn't pile up 100 points in the regular season and they don't understand why critics doubted their ability to perform in the playoffs. According to them, they're exactly where they should be as a team as they go in to Game 7.
"We're right in a spot we wanted to be in," said Alzner. "This year it didn't work out in the regular season. We're lucky we're hitting our stride and that guys have learned so much throughout the regular season that it really put us in a good spot."