Ever since Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, in their 10th season together, first became teammates, the Capitals have been on a crusade to win as many games as they could in the six-month regular season. But they've also vowed to win the Stanley Cup in the "Great Eight" Era, a feat which, all by itself, requires an additional two-month forced march in the playoffs. No other pro sport requires eight months of comparable pain, contact and endurance.
How's that worked out? In 10 years, the Caps have the fourth-most regular-season points in the NHL (918), barely behind Pittsburgh (928), Chicago (922) and San Jose (919). By the end of this season, Washington may have the most or second-most points over a decade. But Chicago has won three Stanley Cups, the Penguins two (with a loss in another final), and San Jose lost the Stanley Cup last season.
In all that time, the Capitals have never made it out of the round of eight.
So, the Caps are doing a rethink. Or, perhaps, just adapting to the realities of hockey age. After winning the President's Trophy as the NHL's best regular-season team twice, including last season, but also going through five puzzled, frustrated coaches, the Capitals have decided to change their approach — while there still is time — for Ovechkin and Backstrom.
"(This season) we've tried not to play 'Ovi' and 'Backi' as much. There's a lot of games. We'll be needing these guys (in the playoffs). Spread the wealth," said coach Barry Trotz, who has reduced Ovechkin's ice time by more than two minutes a game (from 20:32 the last three seasons to 18:22 this year).
Over 82 games, that's a reduction to Ovechkin's playing time of eight games. For Ovechkin, that may mean about five fewer goals. In the last three seasons, when he's led the NHL with 51, 53 and 50 goals, that might have decreased his chances for 50-goal seasons and scoring titles, and reduced his chances for MVP, for which he's finished second, first and second.
"Ovi and Backi have carried this team for a long time. It wears on you," said Trotz on Friday night after a 3-1 win over St. Louis. "Ovi has been really great about it. At first it was like, 'Are you mad at me?' But hasn't complained. He understands his role as captain. Also, he does everything … plays (for Russia) in the World Cup, World Championship … plays in the All-Star Game. Let's keep him young for a long time."
Actually, the reduced playing time for Ovechkin and Backstrom — who is down from 20:32 to 19:11 to 18:48 in Trotz's first three years as Caps coach — is part of a broader plan. Most Washington veterans are playing a bit less. Goalie Braden Holtby, who started an NHL-high 72 games in Trotz's first season, then started 66 last season as he tied the sport's all-time win record for a season (48), is on track for 62 this season.
If it seems the Caps are not quite as good this season as last, that they don't hit as much, don't always take a beating in the crease to get cheap goals, don't draw as many penalties because they don't move their feet as much and don't sacrifice their bodies by diving to block shots, then it may actually be true. There are consequences when you set a team-wide tone of blending hard play with sensible conservation of resources.
Sometimes, perhaps, it even contributes to flat defeats on the road to poor teams, such as a 4-2 loss in Toronto on Saturday. "Completely embarrassing," said Holtby.
"We'll just say that three games in four nights and American Thanksgiving took a little edge off us," said Trotz, continuing the theme of sparing the lash in a season the Capitals hope doesn't end until June.
Why all these tweaks — and the risks attendant on any change in style? And why now?
Last season was bitterness squared. The Caps dominated the NHL for months but went flat after the All-Star Game, playing barely better than .500. Meanwhile, the Penguins were early flops, fired their coach, brought up young players, but finally caught fire and won 14 of their last 16 games. When Washington and Pittsburgh met in the playoffs, the Capitals had home-ice advantage, but the Penguins had all the momentum. The series was fabulous, with five of its six games decided by one goal. But who cares? The Penguins won again.
The Caps would never put it in these words, but it appears that a quarter of the way into this season, they don't care as much as they used to about the regular season. And they don't care that they don't care. They don't even care whether you care that they don't care. Because that's this year's plan. Got it?
The Capitals now perform like some top-tier NHL teams have played since the discovery of ice — hard, very hard at crucial times, but not too hard, not flat-out "let's win the President's Trophy again" hard.
All pro athletes live by a work ethic. But the NHL is the most diligent play-hurt league of all. Act like you're still back home in Galve, Cobourg, Landskrona, Klagenfurt or Chelyabinsk working the 4 a.m. shift on the elk farm. If you don't care-care-care in the NHL, you get hated-hated-hated. And that's honorable. But for every team in every season, it's not always max-smart.
"If we stay fresh, fast and healthy, that's better," said Trotz. "That makes us a hard kill (in the playoffs). … Also, we saw what the Pens did to us last year with their third and fourth lines. Our (stars) outscored theirs. Their (bottom six) did the damage. So, we want to strengthen our third and fourth lines. A little more equalized time puts people in a position where they can feel more comfortable."
In the Penguins series, Ovechkin had as many points (seven) as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang combined. This season the Caps have added former Lightning wing Brett Connolly, who's scored a dozen goals twice, and center Lars Eller, who averages about 15 goals a season, for bottom-six help. So far they haven't melded. But that's the point: The Capitals finally think they have time in the regular season to experiment, work on weak elements of their game and, to be honest, just chill a bit until it really matters.
"We haven't gotten to our best hockey yet," said Marcus Johansson. "If we take care of our habits, play the right way, we'll be fine."
Or, as Karl Alzner put it, "Last year at this time we were pretty red hot. Now we've got to work out a lot of things. But right now, we're pretty decent."
Will pretty decent in November become pretty wonderful in May and June? Or is this a new kind of Caps fake out? Can't be known yet. But if you see the Capitals and think, "They're different," you are right.
And it's not by accident.