At 13:17 of the second period in the tenth game of the season, it became apparent that the Caps may indeed need "that element."
As Mike Green lay on the ice after taking a knee-on-knee hit from the Islanders' Nate Thompson, the Norris finalist's teammates did, well, pretty much nothing. All of the talk of "team toughness" in the off-season seemed to vanish in an instant.
Oh, to be sure, the Caps are a tougher team this year than they were a season ago (and they unquestionably had a brand of toughness even then). They have more players who will go to the net (or whose willingness to do so has inspired teammates to follow suit), they're winning battles along the boards, taking hits to make plays, blocking shots and generally doing the things that define certain aspects of toughness in a sport that puts a premium on it.
But there's more to toughness in hockey, however. There is an element that keeps your star players from being run without fear of retribution. It's a form of presentation and engagement that commands respect in all areas of the ice, including the goaltender's crease. It is, simply put, a deterrent, and it's something that the Caps plainly lack at present.
That the Caps aren't physically intimidating opponents is no surprise. George McPhee acknowledged this would be the case this past offseason when he said, "If people want to screw around, then you beat them up on your power play" - the Caps skill, theoretically, is their deterrent. The problem with that approach (putting aside the obvious issues the Caps are currently having with the extra man) is that it's only effective if the officials make the right calls... and if your skill players get up after they've been fouled. And Mike Green almost didn't on Saturday night.
We noted earlier in the season (against tonight's opponent, no less) how Green in particular has gotten seemingly rattled when physically targeted during a game, and his style of play makes him particularly vulnerable to such tactics. But that in and of itself isn't a problem - its that his teammates have done little to discourage teams getting tough with the young defenseman or some of its other high-priced assets that becomes worrisome. For decades, one of the keys to winning hockey has been preventing the opponent from taking your best players off the ice - it's one of the reasons the sport allows pugilism in the first place.
So what's the answer for this Capitals team? For one, they need to prove that they really are a team on which, as John Erskine put it, "everyone sticks up for their teammate." And if it costs the team a power play or two points in the standings or even a suspension for a player instigating a fight to send a message, chances are that message will be worth it... because the cost of inaction can be crippling. (As an interesting sidenote, the Caps have taken just one instigator penalty since Boudreau took over behind the bench - Chris Clark, against the Flyers (natch), in Gabby's very first game.)
Watch tonight's game against the big bad Flyers. Pay attention to the level of respect with which the Orange and Black treat the Caps' skill players. And take note of how the host Capitals, as a team, react. You can bet George McPhee will be.