When Donald Brashear left the Capitals in the summer of 2009, GM George McPhee said that protection wouldn’t be a problem. He said that instead, they would have a “team toughness.” The plan was to merely beat teams after their cheap shots on the ensuing power play (which led the league last year at better than 25%). It seemed as though McPhee reversed his decision when he signed enforcer D.J. King to the roster this summer. Last night, without King even being in the lineup, the Capitals showed they will not be taken advantage of.
The Washington Capitals’ home opener against the New Jersey Devils got rather heated towards the end. It started as many chippy games do: with a cheapshot. The Capitals were up 7-2, with goals from six different players (Alex Ovechkin scored twice). This time, the spark came from an unlikely source as Ilya Kolvachuk delivered a late hit on Matt Bradley in front of the Capitals’ bench with about 5 minutes remaining in the game.
There was some shoving and chatter, but it was Mike Green (with his only career fight coming in the 2008 playoffs against Scottie Upshall) who took exception. Green challenged Kovalchuk and the two stars fought as the hockey world held their breath hoping no one would get hurt. After a few punches and spinning, the fight ended with Green making his point, and both stars walked to their respective locker rooms unharmed.
Next came a fight between Rob Pelley and Matt Hendricks. This was more of an actual fight, with Hendricks getting Pelley in a headlock before wrestling him to the ground. It was now Matt Bradley’s turn. He and David Clarkson went at it right off the next faceoff, ending when Bradley threw a punch that knocked Clarkson to the ice.
The following turn of events is what Bradley later described as “gutless”. During a faceoff, Devils forward Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond asked Capitals rookie Marcus Johansson if he wanted to go. Johansson, who wasn’t on the ice for any of the previous fights, politely declined. After the faceoff, Leblond chased Johansson down, dropped his gloves, and came out swinging toward the 20 year-old Swede.
Johansson’s back was to Leblond, so he was unaware he was coming. Unable to fight back, fellow youngster John Carlson jumped into the fray to defend his teammate. This led to a dog pile at center ice as players rushed to their teammates’ aid. At the end of it all, Leblond was suspended for instigating a fight in the final 5 minutes of a game, and the Capitals finished the game with a 7-minute power play.
Not only did the Caps beat the Devils the same way they beat teams all of last season, but they seemed to find an edge they had been missing. What was just talk last season has materialized, with the players standing up for each other and defending their lead not only with their goals, but with their fists.
It is an example of the step the Caps hope to take this year. They came back angry about the way last season ended. There is still a bad taste in their mouth and they feel they have something to prove. Most important, they realize they need to stick together to win a Stanley Cup. This was the game Caps fans have been waiting for since the winning streak ended last year: dominance in every aspect.
The typical con of skilled players is that they aren’t tough. The general thinking is you can physically knock them off their game. Saturday night proved that is not the case for the talented Caps. They made it clear that they will have to be beaten playing hockey, not through physicality. While the Devils aren’t exactly the Broad Street Bullies, it was important for the Capitals to make this statement early in the season. If they continue, teams will have to take notice: this is not your Grandma’s Capitals.