Two years ago, the Washington Capitals failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Adam Oates was fired as coach, George McPhee lost his 17-year job as general manager.
Alex Ovechkin led the NHL with 51 goals but had the third-worst plus-minus in the league. Plus-minus is a heavily flawed stat, but when Mike Milbury's showing nightly highlights of Ovechkin loafing around the ice, that eye-popping minus-35 seemed indicative of a superstar who needed 1) to mature and 2) a coach to finally get through to him.
In came Barry Trotz, the first and only coach in Nashville until both the Predators and Trotz needed fresh starts. Their first year together, Ovechkin scored 53 goals, was plus-10 and helped lead Washington to the Eastern Conference semifinals. Their second year together, Ovechkin and the Capitals are running away with the NHL.
Ovechkin, who scored three second-period goals to bury the Wild on Thursday, entered Saturday leading the league with 34 goals, was plus-23 and is vying for a fourth straight Maurice Richard Trophy and sixth overall. The Caps are the fastest team in NHL history to 40 wins.
How did Trotz get through to Ovechkin? When they first met, he told Ovechkin, "I want you to do what you do very, very well when you have the puck … and when you don't have the puck I want you to do what I want you to do so we can get it back real quick."
It's more than that though.
Ovechkin turned 30 before this season. He's no longer a young pup. His hair is sprinkled with gray; he's got 800-plus games under his belt. In 10 previous seasons, he has yet to even play in a conference final, so there has to come a point where you can't validate everything by personal success and you realize there's a certain way to play if you want to win it all.
Ovechkin's goal, he says, "is to get a Cup in [my] hands." Last year, it was about getting to know Trotz and his system. "Right now you can see everybody knows what we have to do," Ovechkin said.
"He's very easy to coach," Trotz said of Ovechkin. "You tell him what you want done, and he usually will do it if you ask him. He's all about team."
Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, his longtime partner in crime and one of the sport's great playmakers, want to win something special together. They see an opportunity now.
The Capitals are not only the league's most prolific team, they are one of the league's best defensive teams. That's Trotz's M.O. ("balance and buy-in," he calls it), and it took him a year to build that culture in Washington.
"Almost every night, guys recognize that there is a balance you can play with," Trotz said, adding that his guys also "recognize I will allow them with the skill-sets they do have to make plays and not be robotic and use their individual talents. But play the game the right way."
Braden Holtby's ridiculous goaltending (one regulation loss in the past 32 games) helps. Caps GM Brian MacLellan, a former North Stars player who still lives near Lake of the Isles, has done a masterful job filling out the roster with guys such as Matt Niskanen, Justin Williams, T.J. Oshie and "favorite teammate" (Trotz's words) Nate Schmidt.
There's a ceiling the Caps have previously reached, but this year, the Caps finally feel like a true Cup contender.
Schmidt lauds how great of a room they have and how the Caps have the ability "to play a lot of different styles." Oshie lauds the depth, how if one night Ovechkin and Backstrom aren't going, well, there's countless others to get it done like young stud Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson or heart and soul speedster Jason Chimera.
But in the postseason, all eyes will be on Ovechkin. People will want to see if he can finally lead this talented squad to the pinnacle.
"When you're in the locker room and especially when you play on his line, you can see how much he cares about the team and how much he cares about the guys," Oshie said. "[From afar], you just see the highlight-reel goals and think it's all he cares about. But he cares about winning."