Capitals have turned to 'a heavier game'

Washington — During his time coaching the Nashville Predators, whenever Barry Trotz prepared to face the Washington Capitals, he always marveled at their size but never saw it translate onto the ice. Sure, the Capitals could carve through defenses and pour in goals, but Trotz never believed the Capitals posed a serious physical threat.

"They might mark us up on the score sheet once in a while, but you never came out of the game going, 'Man, that was a real hard game,'" Trotz said. "It was just a skill game."


Those skilled pieces drove the Capitals to six straight playoff appearances between 2008 and 2013, but they never advanced beyond the second round. Now, after a one-year absence and the changes that followed, they return to the postseason with a hefty style better suited for deeper runs, the ingredient they hope will — ahem — outweigh the New York Islanders' speed when their Eastern Conference first-round series begins Wednesday night at Verizon Center.

In the literal sense, the Capitals are the NHL's heaviest team, averaging 210.1 pounds per active player. They employ a 230-pound locomotive in forward Alex Ovechkin, whose strength has injured no fewer than three opponents this season, on either legal checks or organic collisions. This past offseason, they signed defenseman Brooks Orpik, whose 306 hits ranked third in the league, by far the most by a Capital in the past 10 seasons.


"I think it's probably not quite as high-end skill as it used to be, but it is bigger and it is stronger and it has a little bit of an edge to it," Trotz said, "so we should use the assets that God's given us as individuals. Let's use them."

In the abstract sense, what Trotz often calls "a heavier game" means finished checks, strong forechecks and "just kind of a team that makes you get rid of the puck a second earlier than you want to," defenseman Karl Alzner said. To forward Joel Ward, it means forgoing the old one-and-done habits, when the Capitals could dump the puck into the offensive zone, put one shot on net and exit against their will. To goaltender Braden Holtby, the one with a front-row view of the transformation, it means suffocation by mass.

"It's a hard team to play against," he said. "You take away space, you take away speed by using your size and your strength. Doesn't necessarily mean you go running over guys, like [forward Tom Wilson] does or anything like that. That's not the true meaning of it. The meaning is, you know when you're going back there, you're going to get finished every time. We have some guys that you might not see make a huge hit all year but who are some of the heaviest players in the league, in terms of playing strong."

He was referring to teammates such as Ward, at 226 pounds the second-heaviest player except behind Ovechkin and a strong cycler because of his ability to muscle others off pucks, and forward Troy Brouwer, third on the team in hits with 206. It could extend down the lineup, to a veteran-heavy checking line of strong, contact-friendly skaters such as Curtis Glencross, Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera, or a young-gun fourth line with punch-happy roommates Wilson and Michael Latta, or to a defensive corps that acquired Tim Gleason around the trade deadline to add more muscle to the third pairing beside Mike Green.

"We've always had guys like Ovi and Brouw who racked up quite a few hits, but I think it's more of a constant thing with everybody now," Alzner said. "You can't get away with the fly-by, can't get away with making a guy move a puck and then skating away. Everything has to be finished. It definitely changes the look of your team. I know it's harder to play against. The skill level of a lot of the D-men, it's something that's pretty necessary."

The nature of a seven-game series places a premium on endurance, and here the Capitals will play the long con. "You may not have the effect in the first period, it may not have much of an effect on the first game," Trotz said. But given time, he hoped, the charging bodies will have an impact. A pass zooms wide because the opponent was concerned about protecting himself. Back-checkers start cheating to retrieve pucks and open up another area inside the offensive zone.

"It can wear on you mentally," Trotz said. "Sometimes what you do in the first game may not really reach its full effect until later in the series."

The Capitals' first-round opponent then poses a swift contrast to their heaviness, and in their season series the prevailing approach flipped regularly. The day after Thanksgiving, the Capitals parked themselves in high-traffic areas without issue and won by three goals. One month later, on Dec. 29, the Islanders zipped to a 3-0 lead early into the third period, dancing through Washington's zone and reaping the benefits of several penalties.


Saturday afternoon, in the disappointed home locker room at Verizon Center, the team captain echoed this contrast. When the Capitals check hard and sustain pressure, Ovechkin said, they are hard to beat. And when they do not, they are not.

"That's the goal," Holtby said. "You never know until it happens. There's been a lot of talk about us being a playoff team, a playoff-style team, but playoffs come and it really doesn't matter. We're trying to prepare ourselves as best we can, as professionals to be prepared, but once the time is here, it's just like anything, it doesn't matter unless we do it. That's our focus right now.

"We're just trying to find out the winning recipe. You never know it's right until you win, but I think we're on the right path."