According to those who lived it, the Washington Capitals' bumpy first half of the NHL season was more perception than reality.
The team may be flying higher since beating the hated Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL's Winter Classic on New Year's Day, 4-2-3 after beating the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, but things were never that bad the coach and players say. They just looked bad because last season's team was so good and just maybe that terrific HBO television series 24/7 spent a little too much time on the Caps' eight-game winless streak in early December.
"The wind was at our back last season," Capitals centre Brooks Laich said. "We cruised through the regular season and went into the playoffs with 121 points. How are you going to top that? You have to win 65 games to top that.
"That's probably not going to happen. You're going to come back to earth a little and other teams want to knock you down."
Head coach Bruce Boudreau gets downright impatient with anyone who suggests this year's team is not as successful so far as last year's. When someone wondered if the Montreal Canadiens, who upset the Capitals in the first round of the playoffs, exposed a fatal flaw or two in their game to the rest of the league, Boudreau s scoffed.
"No, but you guys have all figured it out," he said, referring to the media. "I don't think that deeply so if the whole league has figured out something on us, then I wish they'd tell us so we could change what we're doing."
Part of the perception the Capitals are not quite as good as last season is that Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals' top two offensive weapons are not running up points like they did in 2009-10 when Ovechkin had 50 goals and 109 points and Backstrom had 101 points. With his three goals against the Leafs, Ovechkin has 18 after 49 games this season while Backstrom has 46 points. It was Ovechkin's first hat trick of the season and it came against a familiar target as he has 22 goals in 22 career games against the Leafs.
But, argue the Capitals, their more modest offensive statistics (2.84 goals per game, eighth in the Eastern Conference) are because the team as a whole has changed and in a good way. They mended their all-offence ways, which took an adjustment period this season, and are now playing a more balanced game. This had them fifth in the Eastern Conference with a 27-14-8 record before Sunday's games and second in the Southeast Division, not a runaway position for sure, but still solid.
"We were adjusting our game and it's not overnight you can adjust to being a more well-rounded team," defenceman Mike Green said. "In the past, we were a very aggressive team offensively and didn't pay as much attention to defence."
The results are starting to show. In their last 17 games the Capitals allowed just 33 goals. Their team goals-against average is 2.54, ninth in the league, which is not bad considering the Capitals have not finished in the top 12 since 1999-2000 when they were fourth.
Much of the improved defensive game can be laid at the feet of young goaltenders Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov, who played well this season despite some injury problems. Then, with Neuvirth out, the Caps found yet another youngster, 21-year-old Braden Holtby, who came up from the farm team and to record wins in the Caps' last two games.
Adding to the perception of a roller-coaster season was the 24/7 television show and its emphasis on the losing streak. There was also the distraction of having the cameras everywhere, although the players seem divided in their opinions of the effect on their game.
Green said the cameras did not affect the team once the players got used to them and he would gladly repeat the experience. Laich is not so sure, although he said the show played no part in the team's struggles.
"The reaction from fans was that it was great to see, so hopefully it shone a positive light on our sport," Laich said. "It was a lot of work. There was a camera crew in every meeting, every conversation, every bus ride, every plane ride, in the locker room for every game.
"I don't know, we would have to think about it before we do it again."