Last summer, when the Capitals were searching for a head coach to replace Dale Hunter, outgoing veteran Mike Knuble said they needed a “hybrid” between the firewagon style of Bruce Boudreau and the shot-blocking style of Hunter.
So, after 33 games, was Adam Oates the right choice?
“It’s a balance between playing strong defense and still being able to create offense,” Capitals defenseman Mike Green said. “That’s really what we needed. We had polar opposites the last couple years and we’re at a point now where we need one direction.”
Sorry, girls. Green was talking hockey, not music.
Through 33 games the Caps are averaging 2.82 goals per game [ninth-best in the NHL] while allowing 2.82 goals per game [20th in the NHL].
Last year they finished 14th in the NHL in goals per game [2.66] and 21st in goals allowed per game [2.76].
Green said one of Oates’ best qualities has been his unrelenting devotion to playing the same way every night, regardless of a game’s score. That was evident, Green said, when the Caps were in the midst of their 2-8-1 start. They have gone 13-9-1 since then.
“With the amount of games he played in this league, he knows that changing things up is more of a mental stress on the team and just causes more confusion,” Green said. “He’s consistently stayed with the same system throughout the whole season and that has really helped us, especially right now.
“This is the time where we need to be confident and have our coach at an even keel and he’s been outstanding.”
The most discernible difference under Oates has been the Caps’ power play, which has gone from 18th in the NHL last season [16.7 percent] to No. 1 this season [24.1 percent].
The Caps have moved different personnel in and out of the power play units, but the format remains unchanged, with Nicklas Backstrom or Mike Ribeiro along the half wall, John Carlson or Mike Green at the right points, Alex Ovechkin in the left circle, Troy Brouwer or Joel Ward in the slot and Mathieu Perreault or Marcus Johansson at the side of the net below the goal line.
“It’s predictable,” Brouwer said, “but if we move the puck quickly it’s really hard to stop.”
While Oates’ system works with the strengths of Ovechkin, it is not built around the Captials’ captain. Instead, it is a system that relies on all five skaters moving as a unit up and down the ice.
“The system tells us when to pinch and when not to pinch,” defenseman Jack Hillen said. “You look over your shoulder and if you have a forward supporting you and you think you can get it, you go down and you be aggressive. You do what you need to do.”
The key, of course, is having enough trust in teammates to know they’ll read the play correctly.
“It absolutely requires lots of trust, but we play a team sport and we all know where each other is going to be,” Hillen said. “That's why you have a system. I never think twice about it; I've never second-guessed whether the forward's going to be there.
“If you look over and you think the forward won't be able to get back, you just don't go and you play it safe. You only go when you're 100 percent sure that your forward's backing you up and you can get the puck.”
Former Capitals goaltender and current goalie instructor Olie Kolzig said Oates’ greatest attribute is his ability to explain the game he sees on a different level.
“He sees the game so much differently than other people and I think sometimes it’s tough for players to see it the way he does,” Kolzig said. “But he does a good job of explaining it.
“He’s a very positive guy. Very rarely does he come in and yell, rant and rave. But he’s a very intense person. He’s the first at the rink in the morning and the last to leave and he’s always getting [assistant] coaches involved. You learn so much just being in the same room with him.”