Maybe Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton thought an icing was coming as both he and Alex Ovechkin pursued a puck down the ice in Game 5. But Ovechkin has a different theory of why Hamilton suddenly bailed, leaving a loose puck for Ovechkin to snag and then pass to the front of the net for a Brett Connolly goal. Ovechkin and other Washington Capitals had been tossing the Hurricanes aside all game with crushing hits, so maybe Hamilton just didn’t want to be next.
“I think it’s that we hit their D,” Ovechkin said. “I don’t know, he just stopped skating.”
The Capitals have an abundance of skill and speed, but they’re also big, from the 235-pound Ovechkin to 6-foot-4, 218-pound Tom Wilson to 6-foot-3, 217-pound defenseman Brooks Orpik. In an NHL that’s shifted toward a quick transition game, Washington is a rare hybrid with the personnel to excel at that style while also slowing down an opposing team from establishing it with a bruising forecheck.
Through the first four games of this first-round series with the Hurricanes, the Capitals had taken more hits than they’d dished out, especially where it concerned Carolina’s fleet-footed defensemen. In Saturday night’s 6-0 Game 5 victory to take a 3-2 series lead, Washington rediscovered its muscle, credited with 48 hits, 14 of those on the Hurricanes’ blue-liners.
“No matter who you are, when you have to keep going back over and over and over and you’re getting hit, to break the puck out, I mean it takes a toll,” forward Devante Smith-Pelly said. “You saw that in the second and third period. Those guys are playing big minutes and we’re making it hard on them.”
With winger T.J. Oshie sidelined with a broken collarbone, the Capitals recalled Smith-Pelly from the American Hockey League before Saturday’s game, and while they were hopeful he could provide the kind of depth scoring he did a year ago — he was a hero of the team’s Stanley Cup run with seven goals, equaling his regular-season total — the more realistic expectation was that he’d provide a physical spark Washington had been missing. He’s listed at 223 pounds, and on his first shift, he hit Carolina forward Nino Niederreiter, garnering even more applause from a home crowd that was already happy to see him back.
“We knew we needed more physical investment, particularly on their defensemen,” coach Todd Reirden said. “That was a discussion point for us, and something we felt that could give us a better chance to have success — to be able to draw some more penalties, to be able to play in the offensive zone more often, to be able to impose our will. ...
“You don’t know the breaking point for any opposition, but this was a big part of our success last year, that we needed to invest and force the opposition to play a difficult game. Eventually if you do it for long enough and you believe in the rest of your systems enough, you will break them, and that will allow you to get the results you need, which is building your confidence.”
The formation of that identity dates to Barry Trotz’s first season in Washington five years ago, when he observed that the Capitals had never used their heavy roster as a weapon. He challenged the team to be harder to play against, and then before Washington’s second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins last year, Trotz called out individuals. The Capitals had been defeated at that stage of the playoffs by that opponent in back-to-back years, and part of the problem was losing too many puck battles to Penguins players who some Capitals towered over, little things that become big in spring and can go a long way to fluster an opponent. That’s more critical than chasing hits, which can often pull players out of position.
“It’s not always running people over,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said earlier this month. “Smashing them into the glass is great — I love it as much as anybody — but even just grinding people, leaning on them, being tough to take the puck off of. That stuff has a cumulative effect, I think. It’s frustrating when you’re a skating team, for example, and you’re always getting bumped and people are taking you off your stride, it takes a lot of energy to get going again. It’s frustrating if you’re an offensive team, and you’re exerting a lot of energy just chasing the puck because they have a good cycle game going.”
Physicality can separate a player from the puck, or it can generate energy in a home arena. Over the course of a seven-game series, it can wear on a team on multiple fronts — the soreness from repeated checks physically slowing players down while also making them more tentative on the ice out of fear of getting hit. It’s something the Capitals feed off, from their biggest players landing the kind of hits that elicit a reaction from the crowd or the bench to their smallest players doing their part by not coughing the puck up along the wall and being a nuisance that way.
It’s what helped win Washington a Stanley Cup last year, and after a brief identity crisis to start this postseason, the Capitals have seemingly rediscovered their most menacing form.
“It’s a very clear blueprint that gave us success, and it started right from the beginning of the game and it was everybody doing it,” Reirden said. “That’s how it has to be if we’re going to get through this team.”