WASHINGTON (AP) — The Washington Capitals have some sort of knack for making late-season comebacks under first-time NHL coaches.
Seven straight wins to get into the playoffs under midseason replacement Bruce Boudreau in 2008. Winning eight of 10 last year under Dale Hunter after Boudreau was fired.
Adam Oates' turnaround is perhaps the most impressive of the three. He had to install a new system during a lockout-shortened season. The team got off to a 2-8-1 start and was next-to-last in the Eastern Conference standings a little more than a month ago. One of his main tasks was to make sure his players weren't starting to doubt him.
"I believed in what we were doing," he said Wednesday. "And I was hoping that it would turn around, so we could prove that we were going in the right direction. And I think we've proven that."
Indeed. The Capitals have surged to the playoffs by winning 10 of their last 11, clinching the final Southeast Division title before realignment kicks in next season. The talk of whether Washington should have unloaded players at the trade deadline now seems silly — as does the talk that Alex Ovechkin was in an irreversible decline.
"There's definitely some soul-searching that you do when you start out 2-8," defenseman Jack Hillen said. "Everybody's looking around, trying to find their identity on this team. The lockout really hurt us more than others because we had new guys, new system, new coach, and were trying to figure it out."
Ovechkin is now on the verge of winning the goal-scoring title, having tallied his 31st Tuesday night in a win over the Winnipeg Jets. He'll get some serious consideration for league MVP.
"I think the beginning of the year when it was new coaching staff, new system, we change our lines and we just don't know how to play," said Ovechkin, who had more adjusting to do than most after Oates moved him from left wing to right wing. "We need some time to realize how we have to play. It takes us probably 15 games, maybe 16 games to realize it. We try to find the lineup, we try to find good chemistry and it started working after 15, 16 games."
Ovechkin has found Oates to be a refreshing change from Hunter, who acted more as a CEO and relied on his assistants to communicate with players. Oates is hands-on, using humor and positive reinforcement to spur on the troops.
"I think he knows how to treat the guys," Ovechkin said. "He was on the same page with us. He knows exactly what we need. Sometimes when we need days off, he gives us days off, or we just talk to him and he give us options. That kind of chemistry with him and relationship, it's working, so I'm pretty happy he's our coach."
Oates also got a special mention Wednesday on owner Ted Leonsis' blog.
"He is incredibly calm and positive," Leonsis said, "and has built a lot of confidence in our players and in his new system."
Oates is modest about the praise he's getting — yet fully aware that it's a reversal from what he was hearing from some pundits early in the season.
"I didn't have doubts about the way they could play and what I think it could turn into," he said. "The doubts, I think, came just because I was a first-year coach, and all the people out there that would jump on that. But I'm glad all the guys didn't listen to them."
Washington has two games remaining in the regular season to fine-tune the system before hosting Game 1 against a yet-to-be-determined opponent next week. Then it will be time to see if Oates can do something that Boudreau and Hunter couldn't — get the Capitals deep into the playoffs.
"It's the Stanley Cup, that's the only thing that matters," goaltender Braden Holtby said. "This is a step in the right direction, but we have a lot more work to do."
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