I think one of the hardest things to do in sports, and in life, is to shift from a moderately successful, getting-things-done mode to real excellence. The incentives are so hard. If you're already achieving enough success to get by, it is so easy to then let things drift. You're OK. You're holding your job. You're doing enough. You abide.
There are so many athletes who seem to play for payday, and who can blame them? When the salaries are so high that their lives are beyond comfortable, the temptation to go home and enjoy the fruits of that wealth must seem overwhelming at times. It takes a special effort to push beyond the level of play that guarantees continued paydays, and to truly commit to the arduous task of achieving more. Of doing the things that a championship requires.
It's a commitment we've all questioned from this team in the past.
It's a commitment that cannot be questioned this year. This is a different team. And so no matter what happens today, I am proud.
I was proud in 2008 when the Capitals battled the more experienced Flyers to overtime in game 7, when it would have been easy (especially after falling down 1 game to 3) to simply enjoy the historic run that earned the team an unlikely playoff berth. I was even more proud when I heard the injury list, including Shaone Morrisonn playing every playoff game (and big minutes too) with a broken jaw.
I was proud in 2009 when the Caps battled the ultimate champions to game 7 in the second round. That last game was an anticlimax, and the team was spent, but you could see that they had given all that they knew how.
It's been harder in the last two years to be as proud. I don't really question the effort, but sometimes mere effort is easy. Just by demonstrably working long hours, pushing hard when everybody is watching can feel like enough. But effort alone isn't enough. True excellence takes the courage to question one's own approach. To find better and different ways to reach the peak. To step outside of a comfort zone, take a risk, and find the more effective solution where the thing you were already doing was working just fine.
And so I am proud that this team has changed its identity.
It's a little sad that the transition required the replacement of a good coach who was telling the team what they needed to do with another who says many of the same things in a different way. But if coaching were truly more about what is said than how it is conveyed, then it would be more science than art. More chess than poker. Motivation is crucial, and Dale Hunter deserves credit for motivating this squad to change the way they approach and play the game.
Now commitment is not a question. There are other questions, but not that. This group of players -- mostly the same people as last year or two, with some notable additions -- has a completely different approach than they have ever had. And it's been a joy to watch them grow and mature.
I'll end with a great comment by Spidey.
I have an odd calm about me with the impending game 7 that I haven’t had for some time.
This team has surprised me with its calm, its fortitude and, perhaps most importantly, the buy-in of all players.
At one point last night (and perhaps at the end of the game), Ovechkin led the team in blocked shots. That’s a pigs-flew-by-my-window factoid. Semin made Chimera’s goal with his pop-up hard work in the corners. It was a fortuitous bounce of Backstrom, but it never happens if Semin lays down after the hit.
Ovechkin blocking shots? Semin digging in the corner and winning battles? Huh?
The Caps are playing together. They are emulating their coach, who has found a way to harness the chemistry and skill sets that GMGM acquired over the summer. I am looking forward to Saturday night.
Nice guys finish first, but sometimes the season is awfully long.
Whether the good guys finish first and have additional life or we see a goddamned golf flag today, I'm going into this offseason proud of what they have done and how they challenged themselves to become more than they were. And I think that the lessons learned this year will not lightly be forgotten.
This is a dangerous team, because it is more team, and less a pack of individuals than I ever remember seeing it. The Devils, Kings and Coyotes better hope the Rangers pull this out today, because a team with this much talent that plays with this kind of commitment to defense, to playing the right way, and to each other is the kind of team that wins championships.