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Campbell's Cuts: Caps maturation on display in win over Pens

Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals won their first 2009-10 tilt against Brooks Orpik and the Penguins 6-3 Thursday. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

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Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals won their first 2009-10 tilt against Brooks Orpik and the Penguins 6-3 Thursday. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH – If the Washington Capitals find themselves sipping champagne from the Stanley Cup in June, they may very well look back at Thursday night as a major step in their evolution as a championship team.

Yes, they defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 6-3 in one of the most hyped games of the season so far. Yes, they gained a very small measure of revenge on the Stanley Cup champions and the team that vanquished them in the second round of the playoffs last spring.

But what made it special was how the Capitals won. They battled back. They overcame a potentially disastrous turn of events when their goaltender gave up a horrible goal less than five minutes into the game. They persevered and had the look of a team that will be very, very difficult to beat this season.

And if Jose Theodore doesn’t allow a complete stinker to Sidney Crosby, it doesn’t set the table for the Capitals to exhibit their mettle and show the world that this group of young, talented players has matured.

“After that goal, for the first time, I saw a calm on our bench,” said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, “and it was a serious calm.”

In the space of one week, the Capitals defeated the team that was supposed to win the Stanley Cup this season – at least according to THN’s pre-season prognostications – in the Flyers the one that won the Cup two seasons ago in the Red Wings and the one that won the Cup last year.

So many games, so many bruises left to endure, but you have to be encouraged by the Capitals and their intent to make good on Ovechkin’s promise at the NHL Awards last June to win the Stanley Cup this season.

Those with a proclivity for interesting stats will point out that the Capitals are 7-2-0 in games in which one of Ovechkin and defenseman Mike Green have sat out this season. And it’s probably more than just an interesting tidbit for this group. It’s another indication that it indeed has the depth of talent to win games under difficult circumstances.

“It was a pretty bad situation for us, but we kept pushing and pushing and we scored,” said Ovechkin, who scored twice and rendered Penguins defenseman Kris Letang to the status of pylon on his assist of Mike Knuble’s goal. “If we want to play, we play great and if we do what the coach says nobody can stop us. But sometimes we get the lead and we stop playing.”

That didn’t happen Thursday night. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The Capitals played hard when they were behind and harder when they were ahead, making the Penguins look flat-footed and tired on a number of occasions. That was no more evident than the events that led to Ovechkin’s goal that tied the score 3-3 late in the second period.

After stealing the puck from Crosby in his own end, Ovechkin took the puck the length of the ice, enduring a lazy one-handed slash by Crosby before a holding penalty to Kris Letang. Ovechkin scored on the ensuing power play.

The one question that exists for the Capitals is goaltending and Jose Theodore seems to be muddying it up a little with some solid play after stepping in for the injured Semyon Varlamov. It’s hard to argue that the Capitals need an upgrade in goal when Theodore wins five in a row and posts a .925 save percentage.

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But the real concern is whether or not he can sustain that level of play and, if not, whether Varlamov can carry this team through an extended playoff run.

As is the case with most talented teams, the Capitals goaltending doesn’t have to be great. It just has to be good. It doesn’t have to win games, it simply can’t lose too many of them.

History has proved that every young and dynamic team seems to need a kick-in-the-guts playoff disappointment in order to make the battle-tested for a Stanley Cup triumph. The Capitals experienced that epic failure last year in Game 7 against the Penguins and watched Pittsburgh go on to a Stanley Cup parade.

Have they suffered enough disappointment? Are they ready for what lies ahead? Well, with Thursday night as another backdrop, they’re giving every indication they are making all kinds of progress in the gut-check department.

“We’re all dreaming about it,” “Boudreau said. “But the playoffs are a different animal and they’re still a lot of games away.”

THN Puck Panel: Capital Gains
From Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell is joined by The Sporting News’ Craig Custance and The Washington Post’s Tarik El-Bashir to discuss… the Pens/Caps tilt… Washington’s goaltending and defense… The Olympics… And the trade deadline.
PRODUCER: Ted Cooper

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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