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'Far too cute': Washington Capitals winning, but they want more

The Canadian Press
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In this Dec. 10, 2008 file photo, Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin drives the puck down the ice against the Boston Bruins in the second period of an NHL hockey game in Washington. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Lawrence Jackson Author: The Hockey News

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'Far too cute': Washington Capitals winning, but they want more

The Canadian Press
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ARLINGTON, Va. - Here is a measure of just how far the Washington Capitals have come in a year's time: They are not satisfied merely with accumulating victories.

Nowadays, they evaluate victories.

And on Wednesday, the way coach Bruce Boudreau ran practice and the way general manager George McPhee spoke made quite clear that their team's latest performance - a 5-4 overtime win after blowing a 4-2 lead against the last-place New York Islanders - did not cut it.

So what if Alex Ovechkin and Co. are on a four-game winning streak? So what if the Capitals are in first place? So what if Washington's eight-point margin atop the Southeast Division entering Wednesday matched its largest lead since March 2001?

"We didn't play well enough last night. We didn't respect our opponent, and we didn't play hard for the entire game. You could see early in the game that we had a couple of players that were playing far too cute. It was our grinders that got us through," McPhee said. "We expect and demand a lot from these guys now."

That's what happens when a team goes from finishing 27th in the 30-team NHL twice in a row and standing at the very bottom of the league in late November 2007 to a division title and playoff appearance by the end of last season.

Everyone hopes for - demands, to use McPhee's term - more.

"We've all set the bar higher, and we all want to be perfect, and I think we were far from it last night, but we found a way to win. You don't like to give up leads in the third period," said Boudreau, who shuffled his forward lines in Wednesday's session. "We don't want that to all of a sudden be something that rolls into the next game, so we try to end it right there."

Given all the Capitals have been through this season, they might have been able to explain away a slump.

After all, Ovechkin - the team's undisputed star, the NHL's reigning MVP and scoring champion - started slowly and missed two games to be with his ailing grandfather in Russia.

Jose Theodore - the team's big off-season acquisition, the 2002 league MVP, the de facto No. 1 goalie - played poorly, then got hurt.

Indeed, the injuries have been mounting: key forwards Alexander Semin and Sergei Fedorov, top defencemen Mike Green and Tom Poti, captain Chris Clark. And so on, forcing the team to use 33 players already and continually rely on call-ups from the minors, including five who made their NHL debuts.

Here's how ridiculous things became at one point: A producer for the team's Web site, who played goalie in college, was given a uniform and told to sit on the bench as the backup during a game, just in case.

"We haven't had a stretch like that in any time that I can recollect," McPhee said.

Still, Washington is surging, thanks to a back-to-himself Ovechkin plus solid - and sometimes spectacular - contributions from less-heralded players like defencemen Karl Alzner and Tyler Sloan, forward Alexandre Giroux and goalie Simeon Varlamov.

"The guys that have come up from the minors haven't missed a beat at all. They're not out of place," Poti said. "They biggest thing, the reason why we're still on top, is because of our system and interchangeable parts. It doesn't really make a difference if you're missing one or two guys here or there."

In turn, the newcomers credit the veterans for helping make the transition to the NHL easy.

"They don't make you feel like you're not part of the team, which is huge," said Alzner, a 2007 first-round draft pick who was among the final cuts of training camp. "You come in here - it doesn't matter if it's your first day here - you feel like you're one of the guys."

All part of why, going into Thursday's game against the visiting St. Louis Blues, the Capitals are an Eastern Conference-best 12-1-1 at home. And why they have won consecutive road games for the first time in 2008-09.

It doesn't hurt that goalie Brent Johnson - who was given a day off Wednesday but said he'll be available Thursday - has won five starts in a row. Or that Ovechkin has 17 goals and 20 assists over his past 21 games, putting him ahead of last season's scoring pace. Or that Alex the Great is hardly doing it alone: 13 players have combined for the Capitals' 19 game-winning goals.

"I don't think we've ever mentioned, 'Hey, don't wait for Alex to do it,"' Boudreau said. "We expect guys to go out there and do it. You look at the balance yesterday: We had a defenceman score. We had Boyd Gordon score. Brooks Laich scored. We got it from different avenues."

As much as McPhee and Boudreau expect from their players, those players expect a lot from themselves.

Even Ovechkin, whose two goals against the Islanders included the winner on a wrist shot with 10 seconds left in OT, sounded upset a day later.

"We take it as, like, a negative. Winning 4-2, we just stopped playing," he said.

Asked what the team's success through the recent stretch of maladies - eight players are still listed on the team's injury report - signifies, Ovechkin smiled.

"It means, like, we have a great team, and it's going to be dangerous when everybody's going to be healthy and we're going to play our best hockey," he said. "I hope it's going to be the end of the year, when the playoffs start."

As Ovechkin talked to reporters after practice, he leaned forward on a bench in the locker room, unlacing his skates. The motto on the back of his team-issued T-shirt?

"Good is not good enough."

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'Far too cute': Washington Capitals winning, but they want more