Last week at Rink headquarters we pondered who the Capitals' most improved player from last season to present has been. The answers, as you might expect of a team that has seen betterment in just about every facet of the game, were varied. In fact, because defiant bravado is urged behind the curtain here like the bellows urges the flame, our answers even transcended those who actually step onto the ice each night.
But when you boil it down, we are but armchair analysts, one and all, brushing the potato chip crumbs off the lofty perches of our stomachs as we bemoan that last warm trickle of our adult beverage sliding down the can or glass. Surely nothing we say can be trusted.
So why not go straight to the horse's mouth...so to speak.
On Tuesday night, the Capitals players toweled off, took stoic stances in front of their locker room stalls, and celebrated one final Southeast Division Championship. And by celebrated I of course mean they watered the bouquet of microphones with lines about how winning the division was nice, but they had bigger goals on their mind.
I took the opportunity to ask a handful of players who they thought was the biggest contributor to the team's considerable turnaround.
"It's hard to put on one guy," Mathieu Perreault told me. "Obviously Ovi. Ovi stepped up his game big time when he started scoring all those goals for us. It's a big part of it. When Ovi's going, this team is going, and we're just following up on his leadership."
Ah, leadership. How sweet that is to hear, huh? Was it not so long ago that talking heads, pundits, and frustrated fans alike were calling for the ‘C's to be ripped off of Ovechkin jerseys everywhere and piled up and set to the torch, a la a bunch of Harry Potter books in New Mexico?
John Erskine identified three of his teammates who he believes have brightened the fabric of the Capitals' quilt. "I think everybody's chippin' in good. That guy Hillen is scoring some goals and playing some good minutes. Chimmer's getting his groove back, and Holtby is stopping everything, so I think everyone is coming together at the right time."
Steven Oleksy, who was called up just as the team was limping away from a horrific start to the season, wasn't so eager to talk about individual performances, instead citing a locker room that functions as one unit. "I think, to be honest," Oleksy started, "collective there are so many guys that you can point a finger to, and talk about how well they're playing. I think that's been a theme with the team, and I think it's pretty contagious when one guy steps up, and then another guy does. I think the guys respond to that, and I think everyone has gelled in the locker room and ramped their game up to that next level."
Nicklas Backstrom, who today boasts the third most assists in the NHL and is largely credited with being a catalyst to Alex Ovechkin's explosive resurgence, knew exactly who he thinks this team's most improved player is.
"Troy Brouwer," he said flatly, immediately after I asked him. "Troy Brouwer has been really, really good. He's a better goal scorer. He's the kind of player you don't want to play against, and you're glad to have him on your team. He can do everything. He hits. He scores. He's such a big key for this team." And then another name popped into the Swedish center's head. "Ribeiro too. I've never gotten to see him this close before. He's tremendous with the puck. It's fun to see." At this point Backstrom excused himself and began making his way towards the showers. He was about halfway across the room when he turned around and called out to me. "And Holtby," he said, smiling. "Obviously."
But who would know better than the bench boss? The architect of improvement himself. "Tough question," Adam Oates said, after taking a step back from the postgame podium and having a long, thoughtful pause. "Collectively, as a team, when we started seeing the signs of how we were supposed to play- guys making reads, understanding the next play and how it would contribute to the overall evolving of our game, the pace we wanted to play at, and how to put guys in situations to succeed. It's tough to give an answer for one individual guy. Everyone's game has obviously improved. Look at the stats and the numbers we've got. As a team, if you take the first seven games out of there, our numbers are pretty good."
There you have it. How did your armchair answers to "who is the most improved Capital?" align with the thoughts of the men who actually don the sweaters?