Playoff Toughness Is All About Wins, Not PIMs

Amidst their recent stretch of inconsistent and often mediocre play a number of charges have been leveled at the Capitals, some of which are fair (that Bruce Boudreau could stand to hold player more accountable; that the team has lacked enthusiasm at times) and some of which may not be (that George McPhee should have made a bigger splash at the trade deadline).  One that falls into the latter category is that the Capitals "aren't tough enough to play playoff games" and are destined for an early exit come this spring.

On the surface it's easy to assume the Capitals lack toughness.  The team is, after all, near the bottom of the league when it comes to fighting majors, only has a couple of players who drop the gloves more than occasionally, and has only one player, Alexander Ovechkin, who delivers highlight-reel hits with any regularity.  Throw it all together and the Caps aren't a squad that a lot of people associate with toughness. The team's wealth of skill and high number of prominent European-born players compound this perception of "softness" (and before anyone asks, no, that's not a shot at Don Cherry - there are plenty of people out there who associate skilled Europeans with a lack of toughness). 

Superficially, this approach makes some sense - fighting and physical fouls are generally correlated with toughness and for the onlooker who doesn't have the opportunity to watch a decent number of a team's games, it's easy to wind up drawing conclusions based on statistics and highlight packages.  But those numbers and anecdotes offer only a very cursory look at which teams and players exhibit in-game toughness, and to rank teams or players based on some combination of fighting majors and penalty minutes would be a gross oversimplification. After all, does anyone believe that Daniel Carcillo (623 penalty minutes in 141 NHL games) is the toughest player in the NHL (besides Carcillo himself, perhaps), or that Peter Forsberg lacked toughness because he only had two career fights?

That's not to say that fights and big hits aren't indicative of toughness (they are), but rather to say that what it means to be tough in a hockey game goes beyond that kind of overt physicality. Sure, being willing to drop the gloves is toughness (and, for what it's worth, a rarity in hockey's second season), but so too is playing a playoff series with a torn hamstring or scoring a shootout goal the same night you suffered a broken hand, as Boyd Gordon did last season. It's going to the front of the net and taking your lumps night after night to help your team score a goal or blocking shots with whatever body part you can throw in the puck's path, like Brooks Laich has done all year.  It's finishing the season with a cracked collarbone, and a playoff series with your jaw wired shut while dropping thirty pounds because you can't eat, like Shaone Morrisonn did last year. It's suffering a broken nose and having to get stitches in two different places inside your mouth, and responding by scoring four goals like Ovechkin did against the Canadiens last February.  It's missing fourteen months due to a blow to the head, coming back and still being willing to take a hit to make a play like Brian Pothier. It's playing with a torn rotator cuff so painful you can't lift your arm or sleep, like Michael Nylander did for three weeks last season. It's having to take stitches inside your nose after a fight and coming back into the game, like Matt Bradley did in Nashville. It's taking a puck to the face, winding up with a crushed palate bone and short two teeth, finishing your shift, coming back with a dead guy's bone in your body, an begging doctors to let you play two nights laterr - an ordeal that earned Chris Clark (who should be back by the end of April) the nickname "Captain Cadaver."

Of course as a general rule individuals don't win games, teams do, especially come playoff time, and the lack of scraps among the Capitals might seem to suggest the team as a whole is soft, impressive anecdotes notwithstanding. But, just like with individuals, measuring a team's toughness based on fights alone would be a mistake. Team toughness might have something to do with willingness to scrap, but it has more to do with being willing to block shots, bear down and win faceoffs, take the physical game to the opponents on the road, and win one-goal games, categories where the Caps rank in the top five among playoff-bound teams.  In a nutshell, if we're talking about what it takes to win playoff games, we'll take the kind of toughness Milan Jurcina (zero fights, 148 hits, 125 blocked shots) brings over Shane O'Brien's brand (seven fights, 71 hits, 50 blocked shots) any day.

All that being said, it would unrealistic to assume the Capitals were the League's toughest team or that everyone on the team is going to ramp up their game come playoff time. Tomas Fleischmann seems to developing the dreaded "hit him and he goes away" rap, and Viktor Kozlov's career playoff line - no goals, six assists, and a minus-11 rating in 22 games over the course of nine years and five postseasons - suggest he's not going to be a significant post-season contributor. But then, if the Capitals are going to be sunk by a drop in production from wingers who have a combined eight goals in 63 games in 2009, toughness isn't going to be what sends them home early.

Other than that dubious duo, there's not much reason to think the Capitals are going to suffer from lack of toughness in the postseason, even beyond guys like Donald Brashear, John Erskine, and Matt Bradley, who were made for the intensity of NHL playoff games. Michael Nylander? He's scored at a higher rate in the playoff than in the regular season over his career. Alexander Semin? He was the team's best player in last spring's series against the Flyers. Nicklas Backstrom? Four goals and a pair of assists in his first NHL playoff series sounds pretty good to us.  The trend continues through the roster - David Steckel, Eric Fehr, Mike Green, and Brooks Laich have demonstrated the ability to step up in playoff situations for Bruce Boudreau, down a level. And then there's Sergei Fedorov and his 168 points in 169 career playoff games, and, oh yeah, his three Stanley Cup Championships.

Despite mounds of evidence to the contrary - both anecdotal and statistical - there will still be those who think the Capitals are destined for an early playoff exit due to lack of toughness... just like they thought that the Red Wings weren't tough enough at this time last year. How'd that turn out, again?

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