The firm of Ringling, Barnum & Bailey loaded up its elephants and headed out of town Sunday night, leaving Verizon Center ready once again to host the greatest show on earth — or at least the greatest show in Washington, in late March.
The Capitals, chased off their home ice for 15 days, returned to their own version of the Big Top on Tuesday night. The homecoming, as sometimes happens, fell short of expectations when the Caps lost, 3-2, in a shootout to Carolina.
The Caps still haven’t clinched the Southeast Division title and they didn’t gain ground on the Flyers, who dumped Pittsburgh to maintain their hold on the Eastern Conference lead. They lost to a team trying desperately to get into the playoffs. That’s no excuse, though.
“Every team we play, we want them to have something to play for,” said Coach Bruce Boudreau, whose team brought home a 4-2 record from its six straight games on the road. “We still have a lot to play for. We’re three points back of Philly, we’re clinging to being ahead of Boston, Tampa’s winning, so we’re not by any stretch of the means taking a vacation until the playoffs. We want to play hard and win every game.”
The Capitals took 40 shots on goal Tuesday night, which would have been unheard of just a few months ago. In fact, it’s easy to forget — and hard to fathom — that not long ago, Boudreau was under fire for an eight-game losing streak (0-6-2), a new style of play and the federal budget deficit, among other sins. That eight-game skid last December was particularly damaging because it played out in front of HBO’s “24/7” cameras. In the documentary, Boudreau alternated between frustration and bewilderment, yet managed to avoid pessimism in front of his shellshocked players. He should have been short-listed for an Oscar for that performance, if nothing else.
It was the December drought, and the Caps’ streaky play for much of the season, that led to rumblings among the fan base, impatient with a lack of scoring that, not surprisingly, led to a lack of winning — even with three goaltenders with double-digit victory totals this season, a franchise first. The high-flying offense of a year ago was gone, replaced by a more deliberate — read boring — attack. Some fans even went so far as to call for Boudreau’s head.
Perhaps they’d like to hang it in the rafters at Verizon Center, where the banners could double as Boudreau’s resume: Southeast Division champion the past three seasons, President’s Trophy winner last season. The Caps have all but locked up Boudreau’s fourth division flag. Four flags in four seasons — not bad. That’s why all the “fire Boudreau” talk seemed premature then, and now.
Of course, what’s missing is the banner that reads “Stanley Cup Champions.” In Boudreau’s first three seasons, the Caps have exited the playoffs twice in the first round and once in the second. That makes his postseason record a miserable 13-15.
It is those less-than-stellar results that led to the change in the Caps’ style of play, which is supposed to serve them well in the postseason. So the referendum on Boudreau really won’t begin until April 13, the start of the playoffs.
But a referendum seems moot at this point. Boudreau, 56, recently set an NHL record for the most wins — 184 — by a coach in his first 300 games. Mike Keenan (183), Toe Blake and Don Cherry (176) are behind him on that list — along with every other coach in the game. Every other coach.
What that record doesn’t say about Boudreau is that he took a team in a tailspin and got them out of it. If he’s going to get the blame for the losing streaks, he has to get the credit for the winning ones, too. A new system usually comes as a package deal with a new coach; it’s easier to turn a team upside down if you have no relationships to ruin.
Boudreau also knows when to defend his players, staving off questions Tuesday night about Semyon Varlamov’s performance by pointing out how good the Caps’ goalie play has been all season, and when to take a verbal smack, such as criticizing Alexander Semin’s “dumb penalty” late in the game as something he’s been doing “for five years.”
Boudreau’s future may still depend on how the Capitals perform not in January or February, but in April, and in May. No matter how fond General Manager George McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis are of Boudreau, four early postseason exits in four years might be difficult to ignore. But not impossible.
Five regular season games remain — three at home, two on the road — before the real circus returns to town – the Stanley Cup playoffs, and all the dread and angst those words now inspire in Washington. Boudreau has done yeoman’s work in getting the Capitals to buy into a new system and turning this team around from its December swoon. He’s earned the right to hold on to his job as ringmaster for another tour.