WASHINGTON -- There was a moment during the Washington Capitals' 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday night when Adam Oates could stop coaching. Behind the Capitals bench, he didn't need to remind his players what they had to do next within the framework of his system. They were doing it themselves.
"One of the most gratifying things last night was listening to guys speak on the bench so you don't have to," Oates said following an optional practice on Saturday in which few players exercised their choice to rest. "I really saw signs of that last night. Guys commenting on what to do next. The enthusiasm that that brings, which means obviously we're having a little bit of success."
A little bit that needs to continue to grow if the Capitals are going to climb out of the 2-5-1 hole they've dug for themselves at the start of this shortened season.
The Caps' slow start is the result of a number of factors. Yes, Alex Ovechkin hasn't scored at the pace in which he's expected, but that alone is survivable. They're playing without forward Brooks Laich and defenseman Dmitry Orlov, both injured during the lockout. Of the remaining defensemen, not one played competitive hockey during the lockout, resulting in the development of bad habits and less than ideal conditioning. All teams are dealing with injuries and conditioning issues on some level right now. But with the Capitals, there's something more.
"The hardest part is switching systems," said defenseman Karl Alzner. "If we just went into the same groove we had last year, it wouldn't have been too tough."
That's what makes Friday's win so important for the Capitals. They've been seeing signs of progress, progress that started when they played the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 25. They got to see up close the team they'd been watching so much on film, the one whose success last season Oates is trying to emulate in Washington. While they lost that game against the Devils 3-2 in overtime, there was something different about that loss than the ugly ones to open the season against Tampa, Winnipeg and Montreal.
"We actually played a really good game. We matched them, the speed of the game picked up because of that," Oates said. "Since then, we've played five good ones in a row."
Well, four actually. The fifth game is Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the first of two this week against the Pens. Those two games provide the perfect test for this Capitals team, especially defensively.
One of the biggest challenges for the Capitals' defensemen is adjusting to new responsibilities in the defensive zone. We'll let Alzner explain the details: "We used to play a man-on-man. That's easy because you're always on somebody. You always feel like you're checking someone. This year, sometimes we play an overload, which means that there's three of us and two of them. Which means there's always a guy floating around [open]. That's not something we like to do normally, instinctually we want to be in front of the net and guard. And now, there's times when you're not. It's great because you've seen it work, against us. And it's tough to play against."
When the team reviews video now of its performances, it sees players going to spots on the ice immediately, Alzner said. There's no longer that moment in which they pause and look, calculating where to go next.
"Now, it's a pivot and then go to the spot," he said. "You can see it."
Goalie Braden Holtby has witnessed this all before. Because of the lockout, Oates started the season in Hershey, and installed his system with the Bears. Like the Capitals, they started slowly with just one win in their first five games.
"It was almost the exact same thing," Holtby said. "We slowly got better and better and were good at the end. It's one of those things that takes time, it takes reps in the games. We're learning pretty quick actually, our record doesn't show it."
The Penguins enter Sunday's game coming off a 5-1 win against a Devils team the Capitals are aiming to be. It's an indication as to just how dangerous Pittsburgh is, even if you have the numbers defensively.
"They can beat you two-on-three, that's the thing," Alzner said. "So they're really, really good. If you're going to the corner with [Sidney] Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin, they easily can come out with the puck. You have to be that much sharper, that much better."
And you have to be prepared to score a couple of more than the 2.25 goals the Capitals are averaging this season, which is where Ovechkin comes in.
He may have played his best game of the season on Friday, as the experiment on the right wing showed flickering signs of success. He got his touches early, which helped, like an elite wide receiver who catches a couple of passes on the first drive. Oates was pleased with some of the reads he made, reads he anticipates being even easier for Ovechkin a month from now.
Oates estimated that it took Ilya Kovalchuk that long to get comfortable on the right side, which is a fair timeline for Ovechkin. But the payoff for Ovechkin could end up being even bigger.
"I think that the system is built better for Ovi because he's more of a slasher and a skater and go get it," Oates said. "That's really what the system is designed for."
Watching Ovechkin slash from the right side and enter the offensive zone on the left appeared from the untrained eye like a player gravitating to spots on the ice where he's most comfortable.
Joey Crabb explained otherwise. Pointing his finger on his leg to diagram Ovechkin's expected path, he articulated why Ovechkin was doing exactly what was taught.
"Once we start breaking out, it's his job to come across and get the puck and then he's entering the zone on the left side. Where if he's a left winger, his job would be to come across on the right side," Crabb said. "If anything, if he wants to play on the left side, if he wants to enter the zone on the left side, I think maybe the right side would be better for him to play. Our system is to slash across."
It makes sense.
They're seeing progress in Washington, maybe not at the pace they want. Maybe not even at the pace necessary to compete in the shortened schedule. That pace will be revealed in the two games against the Penguins this week.
"I like where we're going," concluded Troy Brouwer, "but I don't like where we're at right now."