One morning last week, I happened to be asking Matt Niskanen about leadership. Our conversation had nothing to do with the Caps’ recent transactions, nor with Niskanen’s own role on the team. I was just curious whether the public perception of athletic leadership — looking steely and sounding eloquent in front of a microphone, or maybe calling a players-only meeting and then telling the world about it — matches the perception inside a team’s dressing room.
“Not necessarily,” Niskanen said. “I think that will always kind of stay behind closed doors, true leadership moments. And that’s where it probably should be; that’s part of being a team. There’s times when I think the biggest thing is how do people act when you get into uncomfortable situations. How do you play when things are a little uncomfortable, and it’s do or die? Those are leadership moments.”
A few hours later, the veteran defenseman jack-hammered a power-play shot that was deflected into the net, giving Washington a comeback win over Pittsburgh. The next night, Niskanen notched the game-winning goal in a victory over Toronto. Three days later, Niskanen had another game-winner, this time in a comeback win over the Bruins. Three times in five nights — with the Caps in uncomfortable late-game moments — the puck left Niskanen’s stick and wound up behind a goalie. Were those leadership moments?
This Caps team, sometimes dogged by leadership questions over the past decade, now has an interesting way of discussing its flow chart. Alex Ovechkin is the captain, and Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Orpik wear letters as alternates. Ask around the dressing room, though, and the standard view isn’t that the Caps have two or three great leaders. It’s that they have more.
“Probably half the room,” Orpik said.
“I’d say, legitimately, probably 95 percent of the guys,” Karl Alzner said.
“There’s so many guys that speak up,” T.J. Oshie said. “You can’t have eight or nine letters, but there’s a good leadership group here.”
It’s good, players say, not because of fiery intermission diatribes, or a players-only meeting like the one that propelled the Redskins during their second-half run. (“I think everyone envisions these rah-rah speeches … I don’t know too many hockey players who are like that,” Niskanen said. “The stuff you see in movies? Not too often.”)
These Caps instead cite more subtle things, small flourishes at the edges of a season’s silhouette. The way Tom Wilson barrels around the ice when he’s in that sweet spot between physicality and a penalty. The way the league’s top goal scorer doesn’t hesitate to block a shot or throw his body into an opponent, even when he probably shouldn’t. The way Justin Williams chatters on the bench; “How calm he is, how he says the right things at the right times,” Alzner said. “Justin Williams is one of the best leaders I’ve ever played with.”
And the way the entire roster will recognize a bit of grunt work that leads to another ho-hum early-March win.
“This team’s really positive in that way,” T.J. Oshie told me. “Guys notice those little things.”
Now consider one of the best moments of the past week, when the Caps won three out of four games in five nights, continuing their season-long spree of .750-ish hockey.
After falling behind rival Pittsburgh 2-0, Washington rallied back to tie the score, and earned a third-period power play. The Penguins appeared to have an easy clear. Then Oshie launched himself between two Penguins, sweeping the puck back to Nicklas Backstrom while horizontal to the ice. From there, the puck went to Niskanen, whose blast kissed Oshie on its way into the net.