Learning to Win Small

WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 03: Michal Neuvirth #30 of the Washington Capitals is congratulted by teammates after the Capitals 5-4 shootout victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Verizon Center on November 3 2010 in Washington DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
"If you're lucky enough to make the playoffs, one-goal games and how you play in them is a real important factor, because in the playoffs every game is so close. [W]hen you're playing these one-goal games and you're having success, it means the players are buying in to what you have to do all the time." - Bruce Boudreau, 11/8/10

When the final seconds of regulation ticked away against the Flyers Sunday night, one thing was for certain - regardless of the outcome, the winner would walk away with the slimmest of possible victories. It marked the seventh time in this young season that the Capitals would be engaged in a one-goal battle, with five of those being decided via overtime or a shootout, and last night's victory gave the Caps a fairly gaudy record of 6-1-0 in those seven games.

Consider that through fourteen games last year the Caps had ten such nail-biting finishes, and were only 4-2-4 in those games - four wins and six losses in the type of game that dominated the early 2009-10 season for the Caps and the type of game that tends to dominate the postseason. And over the course of the '09-'10 season the Caps would be involved in 31 more one-goal contests and finish with a record of 20-8-13 in those games, losing more than they won and ultimately being unable to hold onto a much larger lead when it really counted.

This year, as early as it is, they've shown improvement. Never mind the fact that the Caps have let teams like Toronto back into games or that they've surrendered the first goal in many of these games - when the games were tied and/or the Caps were down, they did what they had to do, what all good teams do. They rallied.

It’s a promising start, if not fully indicative of how the team has played overall - twelve of a possible fourteen points earned in games where the other team is within a goal of tying or winning the game is huge for a team that once only seemed comfortable in lopsided victories. Equally promising is how they've done it. For instance, they're getting victories from multiple sources, with a different guy playing the hero in each of the one-goal victories:

  • 10/11 vs. Ottawa: After a fairly uninspiring game (to put it mildly), Alex Ovechkin did what Alex Ovechkin does best - he simply fired the puck. The deceptively tricky shot evaded Ottawa goaltender Pascal Leclaire, got the captain on the board at last and gave the Caps their second win of the year.
  • 10/13 vs. New York Islanders: Two nights later the Caps were ensnared in a goaltenders' duel between Michal Neuvirth and Dwayne Roloson, and it was looking more and more like it was going to take a weird hop, a deflection, a screen, something to break the stalemate. Enter Nicklas Backstrom, who picked up his first of the year in Mike Knuble-esque fashion and put the Caps ahead late in the third period.
  • 10/16 vs. Nashville: Sure, we mock him for that "if you want bread, go to the bakery" quote a lot - and he definitely could make it more of a habit than he has in recent months - but Brooks Laich got the game-winner because he did one thing and did it well: he went to the net and got the two points for his team.
  • 10/23 vs. Atlanta: It was a night on which Alexander Semin shone, as he picked up his first hat trick of the year and, save for a horrible last-minute shift by his teammates, might have had the game-winner himself. But it was Tomas Fleischmann who finished it off in overtime, capitalizing on some hard work by Eric Fehr for the huge game-winner.
  • 11/3 vs. Toronto: Another night, another big goal by Alexander Semin, who tied up a game that had gotten away from the Caps late in the third and then added extra fireworks by rifling a slapshot past goaltender Jonas Gustavsson at point blank range for the shootout clincher.
  • 11/7 vs. Philadelphia: After a fairly even, solid, back-and-forth contest, Mike Green took advantage of what the Flyers seem to do best (take penalties at bad times) by doing what he seems to do best - winning the game in overtime. Probably a good thing Coach didn't make them go offside, no?

The Caps are also back to making teams regret taking penalties (despite the relatively slow start with the extra man) and have gotten the game-tying or game-winning goal while on the power play four different times. To some extent that's a product of a little luck and of course the discretion of the referees; but it's also often a product of simply outworking the other team and forcing them to take a penalty (or two). We've seen it before - if they're not moving their feet, if they're not working and pressing and frustrating the other team, those calls just don't come. Power plays may be more advantageous in the extra frame but the Caps are forcing other teams to be in that position in the first place...and making them pay.

The result of the diverse scoring, the power play success, some solid defensive play and more than a little superhuman goaltending thrown in is that the Caps find themselves high in the standings where they belong instead of scrambling for points to merely stay afloat and keep pace. Unlike last year where wins were lopsided and losses painfully close, the Caps have made adjustments and taken yet another small but measurable step forward.

And there is, perhaps, something to the idea that learning to win like this now could pay dividends in the playoffs. Because whether the success rate in such games is directly linked to postseason success or not, learning how to win without shellacking the other team, adjusting to the style of play and having the discipline required to execute it...well, those are the kinds of lessons that might just come in handy further down the road.

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