WASHINGTON - "The playoff race is now on," declared Washington Capitals owner and nonstop blogger Ted Leonsis in the 10:03 a.m. Friday entry of his Ted's Take blog.
Wait a minute. Playoff race? Capitals?
Well, take a long, hard look at those standings as the NHL heads into the all-star break. Washington (23-22-5) is one point behind first-place Carolina in the Southeast Division. Granted, it's a weak division, but even this is more than anyone could have expected considering where the Capitals were two months ago.
"Yeah, that's true," general manager George McPhee said. "We're really pleased that we've turned it around to date. It's in some ways gratifying. We believed this was a good team, and now we're showing that it's a good team. Now we expect to win games."
Ask anyone in the locker-room, and they'll tell you the turnaround centres on first-time NHL coach Bruce Boudreau, who took over when Glen Hanlon was fired on U.S. Thanksgiving. The Capitals were 6-14-1 - four points worse than any team in the league - when Boudreau was summoned from the AHL affiliate in Hershey to rescue a rebuilding project that was quickly turning sour.
"It's been a lot of hard work," said centre Brooks Laich, who scored in Thursday night's 2-1 victory over Toronto. "It's come from the change. It's come directly from Bruce. He's a confident guy, and he preaches that to his players, and his players are playing with confidence. He makes the game real easy to play. It's a lot different around here now than it was before."
Boudreau's demand for aggressive, attacking play has produced startling numbers - at least compared to what the Capitals had been doing. They were averaging a mere 2.2 goals per game under Hanlon. Under Boudreau, it's 3.4 - an increase of more than 50 per cent.
The Capitals were 1-6-1 in one-goal games under Hanlon. Under Boudreau, they are 11-3-4. The power play is scoring 20.8 per cent of the time, far better than the 14.6 per cent rate under the previous coach. Washington recently completed a season sweep of Ottawa, going 4-0 against the top team in the Eastern Conference.
"It doesn't surprise me that things are starting to snowball into success," said Mike Green, whose 14 goals is tops among NHL defencemen. "He doesn't make it comfortable around here by any means to make us feel satisfied with what we've done. We want to keep going and making sure we're making strides."
It helps that Green and several other young Capitals played under Boudreau at Hershey, where the Bears won the AHL title in 2006. The coach still had to win over the rest of the squad.
"It took two or three weeks before they started realizing that I think I meant business a little bit and I know what I'm talking about for the most part," the 52-year-old coach said. "I hate the term 'buying in,' because as a player, you are supposed to 'buy in.' I felt comfortable with the group from the beginning. I just did what I did. I wasn't going to change too much at my age, and it seems to have a positive effect so far."
Among the many players who have enjoyed the benefits of the changes under Boudreau is the team's star, Alex Ovechkin, who enters the break as the league's leading goal-scorer. Twenty-five of Ovechkin's 39 goals have come under Boudreau, as well as 17 of his 26 assists.
The team's recent success gave Ovechkin enough confidence to sign a 13-year contract extension worth an NHL-record US$124 million. He scored in six straight games after signing the deal, a streak that was broken Thursday night when, instead of putting the puck in the net himself, he assisted on both of Washington's goals.
Still very much the playful sort, Ovechkin smiled when asked if he thought the Capitals could realistically be talking playoffs at the all-star break, given the slow start to the season.
"Actually, why not?" he said. "We just have a goal - play hard every game. And make little steps. It's just the beginning for our team."