Change of identity has been key for Caps

Alex Ovechkin, captain of the Washington Capitals, talks with head coach Dale Hunter during a...

Alex Ovechkin, captain of the Washington Capitals, talks with head coach Dale Hunter during a practice in Arlington, Virginia. (REUTERS)

TERRY KOSHAN, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 8:52 PM ET

ARLINGTON, VA. - Brooks Laich sat up and took notice last July when Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee went on bit of a spending spree.

McPhee, who had acquired Troy Brouwer from Chicago in a trade at the NHL draft, soon added veterans Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik and Tomas Vokoun.

Great, thought Laich, a leader on a team that counts Alex Ovechkin as its captain. A solid group, in his mind, was improved.

But it wasn't until the end of November, when Dale Hunter took over as coach after Bruce Boudreau was fired, that the true re-shaping of the Capitals began to come into sharp focus.

"It has been interesting to see our team evolve with the change in identity, change of mentality," Laich said. "We have learned that preventing a (scoring) chance is more important than trying to create one.

"It is a game of mistakes, and you need to be solid defensively. Don't give them anything and think that sooner or later the other team might break down and give us a chance, and we have opportunistic scorers.

"That's a different mentality than what we had in here before."

Of course, the Capitals will carry that mentality into Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal Saturday night against the New York Rangers. The winner of that game will clash with the New Jersey Devils in the conference final, starting Monday night. The loser will pick up the mental pieces and begin to prepare for a summer of what-ifs.

Neither club practised Thursday, and the Rangers players had the day off completely. Hunter said he would have a better idea on Friday whether there would be any chance forward Jay Beagle could return from a lower-body injury, one that caused him to be replaced in the lineup by Halpern in Game 6.

No one knows yet what Hunter will do if the Caps lose, whether he will pack up and head back to the London Knights (as some suspect) or decide that coaching in the NHL is something he wants to do for the foreseeable future.

For Hunter, the transition to coaching NHL players after being responsible for the hockey well-being of teenagers wasn't done with the snap of his fingers.

"Nothing is easy," Hunter said. "(If it was) it would not be worthwhile. (NHL players) are older and they are the best in the world. (Junior players) are younger and make more mistakes. There are more scoring chances in junior because you are teaching them how to play the right way. Up here, there are less mistakes."

You expect the grit guys, the Laichs, the Jason Chimeras, the Brouwers, the Matt Hendricks, to get in line with Hunter's way of thinking. But there was Alexander Semin dumping the puck into the Rangers' end in Game 6, when, Laich figured, he might have tried to dangle in the past. There was Ovechkin blocking three shots, the most of any Caps forward in what was the team's biggest game of the season.

But let's not kid ourselves. No team is perfect, but when the Capitals do have breakdowns and make mistakes, 22-year-old goaltender Braden Holtby (who became a father on Thursday when his fiance gave birth to a boy, named Benjamin Hunter Holtby) has calmly turned away just about every Rangers shot when a save has been needed most.

Laich said he "absolutely" wants Hunter to return next season, but then caught himself and reminded reporters that he was thinking only of Game 7.

But he recalled the day he learned it was Hunter who would be taking over from Boudreau.

"I took a breath, and it was like, 'This is going to be really serious,'" Laich said. "I can't speak enough (about Hunter). He has been great. It's almost like having another veteran in the locker room. He has been through these battles."

TORTORELLA NOT WORRIED

His team lost Game 6 after just scraping by in Game 5, but John Tortorella isn't a worried man.

"I have a ton of optimism about our club," the New York Rangers coach said during a conference call Thursday.

"Our club has gone through a lot of different things as far as momentum goes, all through the year and through the playoffs. I have nothing but confidence as far as what is going to happen on Saturday."

That's when the Rangers and Washington Capitals will meet at Madison Square Garden in the seventh and deciding game of the Eastern Conference semifinal. The Rangers lost 2-1 in Game 6 in Washington on Wednesday, two nights after they got a late goal from Brad Richards to send Game 5 to overtime, when Marc Staal scored the winner.

The Rangers did well handling adversity in the first round, taking the last two games of the quarterfinal against the Ottawa Senators after losing Games 4 and 5.

terry.koshan@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/koshtorontosun


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