Chris Nelson, NPR
Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich focuses on the puck during practice.
Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich focuses on the puck during practice. Chris Nelson, NPR
Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich likes to say that the most important skill in the Stanley Cup playoffs is the ability to win hockey games.
This simply-stated belief is at the heart of what it takes to succeed in the world's fastest team sport. The road to the Stanley Cup playoffs is a steady, uphill grind. And after 82 games of hard-fought hockey, teams need deep mental and physical reserves to keep pushing — through injury and exhaustion — into the post-season.
Building those reserves on the Washington Capitals is the task of head coach Bruce Boudreau.
Boudreau has seen his team pull off some improbable wins and suffer some crushing defeats this season. His challenge is to find the teachable moments, and use them to improve his team's play.
"It's like being a parent. If you keep whipping them eventually it goes in one ear and out the other. I try to do everything [that] worked on me as a player. It's showing video, showing where we are making mistakes and saying let's correct this. And then move forward and be the team we are capable of being."
Boudreau's approach is a balance of motivation and punishment, practice and rest, intensity and play.
After a disappointing loss in early January, Laich faced the media in the locker room and spoke for his team.
"I don't care what you say about talent, this game is about heart. And the team that works the hardest is usually the team that's going to win and tonight — tonight I think they wanted it more, which is not an easy thing for us to sit here and say."
The next day, Boudreau put his team through a tough practice in their facility on the eighth floor of a parking garage in Arlington, Va. He focused on getting back to basics.
Just like in football, hockey coaches have a signature system. Coach Boudreau's system is fast and aggressive. It's designed, says Laich, to make other teams feel like they're skating uphill.
"Our whole scheme is when we have the puck, we want to be moving as fast as possible and be creative. But when you don't have the puck, we are going to work as hard as we can to get it back. And we don't want it back 5 seconds from now, we want it back right now."
This approach on paper makes for intense practices on the ice. On tough days, Boudreau wraps the technical session with skating drills that leave his superfit players leaning on their sticks or going down on one knee in exhaustion.
To blow off steam after practice, the players have come up with a series of on-ice games whose friendly rivalries extend into the locker room and into the players' lives away from the rink.
Finding ways to have fun despite the pressure of the season is all part of building those reserves a winning team needs. And so is regular maintenance of the body, as the season takes its physical toll.
When Laich sacrifices his body to 90-mile-an-hour pucks, the team's trainers go to work. "They keep us in the lineup, they keep us going. They have a very tough job because a lot of the time we are whining and complaining about stuff that hurts and its not their fault, but they have to deal with it and they do a great job of keeping us playing."
In early April, after the Capital's final home game of the regular 2008-2009 season against the Atlanta Thrashers (a game they won 6-4 to thunderous applause), Laich sat in his locker room stall peeling off layers of padding. He had ice bags on several new bruises, the price he paid for his assertive play in front of the net. He had scored two goals, but there was more than that behind his broad smile.
"This time of year is so fun because you get into — if you're winning — you just get into such a roll of coming to the rink, practicing hard, going home, getting rest, coming to the rink, win a hockey game, next day — day off. Next day win another hockey game. Next day, day off. It's getting nice outside. It's the funnest time of year to play. I think that's why it has been 6 or 7 months already, but it's so much fun it keeps you mentally refreshed."
Heading into the playoffs, the Capitals are looking for the kind of alchemy they see outside in Washington D.C., where the cherry blossoms are peaking. Good genetics, good chemistry and good timing — all the elements a team needs to hit the playoff groove.