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On Top of Their Game

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, December 4, 2008

At least someone is in first place. Who would have dreamed, just a year ago, that it would be the Capitals?

Back then the Redskins, with Joe Gibbs, were heading to the playoffs. Why, last December, they thumped the Giants in the Meadowlands. The Wizards, led by Gilbert Arenas, were also playoff-bound. The Nats were touting a possible .500 season in their new ballpark. The Caps? They were 6-14-1, 14th in the conference and had just fired their coach, hiring a "Slap Shot" character as interim coach.

Now, the transformation is as stunning as it is complete. The Wizards, with Arenas recovering from his third surgery on the same knee, have fired their coach and are picking up the pieces with Ed Tapscott. The Redskins, feeling jilted by Gibbs, hired an offensive guru as new coach; now they can't find the end zone with a GPS. The Nats lost 102 games, drove away fans and haven't shown yet that they'll pay what it takes to win.

So let's salute the Capitals, a team that, in just one year, has transformed itself so completely that, despite injuries to seven players, including two of its top three stars, it expects to win almost every time out. On Tuesday, the Southeast Division leaders were furious with themselves because they had just played a lazy, out-of-character game.

"I don't want to hear excuses about injuries," said Bruce Boudreau, who was hired last Thanksgiving, a kind of hockey Crash Davis, yet ended up as the NHL's coach of the year.

"A great player should say: 'Okay, this is my chance to shine. There is no [Alexander] Semin, no [Sergei] Fedorov, no [Mike] Green. It's my ice time,' " said Boudreau, boiling after a 5-3 loss to Florida, though his Caps will still be in first place today when they host the Islanders.

"Instead, you're undefeated at home and you're getting booed in your own building -- and probably rightly so," said Boudreau, who described the performance as "the least energy of the year. . . . We're not executing common-sense plays they've been making since they were 13 years old."

You can tell a ton about a team, and sometimes about the future of a whole franchise, by the way it reacts to its most infuriating games. When you know you're mediocre or fear you're bad, you cut your players slack, praise their effort in a near comeback such as Tuesday's, when the Caps rallied from a 4-1 deficit with five minutes left to 4-3, then got three shots on goal in a furious attempt to tie the score before allowing a late empty-net goal.

Instead, Boudreau snapped: "Anybody can play hard for seven minutes. It wasn't a close game. I told them: 'It's not me yelling at you. You should be yelling at each other.' "

You didn't hear talk like that from respected, but now departed Eddie Jordan; though Tapscott's tone may be tougher, you can't snap the whip every night over a team that has lost its center (Brendan Haywood) perhaps for the season.

Jim Zorn felt so bad criticizing rookie Malcolm Kelly for dropping a long pass that hit him in the numbers Sunday that he prefaced his remarks with "bless his heart." And, down in Southeast, Manny Acta knew his nine was so bad that he hugged his players twice a week just for showing up.

The Caps are different, because the Caps are good. And, over the next few years, might become exceptional. The next few weeks might be a struggle while they heal. Even Boudreau concedes he's never seen so many injuries at once, a list that includes four defensemen -- hardly the Caps' strength even when healthy. But the future? That's bright.

The cornerstone of the Capitals' blueprint was the good luck of jumping from the third spot to first in the '04 draft lottery to grab Alex Ovechkin, last year's league MVP, November's NHL star of the month and the most explosive, exciting player in the sport. His 13-year contract anchors the franchise and sets the standard for others. But all around him are young standouts such as gifted sniper Semin, 24, who has 13 goals in just 16 games; the multitalented Green, 23, who has eight power-play goals; and center Nicklas Backstrom, 21, who had a goal and an assist Tuesday.

"The organization is on very solid footing. We have a very good group here now," said the man mostly responsible for the successful rebuilding, General Manager George McPhee. "But we have another wave of tremendous players, terrific young players, coming along that really puts us in the hunt for the Stanley Cup" consistently.

The Caps are lucky in their timing. The economy can't find its ripcord. As disposable entertainment dollars shrink, excitement is what still sells. With a high-scoring, creative team, these are the most entertaining Caps ever. The best? Not yet. The defense is not deep enough, the goaltending adequate but not yet special.

Still, "it's all come together so nicely," McPhee said. "Not only winning, but with exciting, colorful players. I think we're already sold out every weekend for the season. We've broken all our records for the first 10 home games."

What if the Caps' nadir years had coincided with this recession? "Don't even say it," groaned a Caps official. As Steelers fans usurp seats at FedEx Field, as the Wizards worry, as the Nats pray for renewals, the Caps are selling. A year ago, you could debate the dominant pro athlete in town -- Arenas, emerging Jason Campbell, potential all-star Ryan Zimmerman? Now, it's Ovechkin by a mile.

Every other major pro team in town, even soccer's usually exceptional D.C. United, is now rebuilding or switching coaches and systems, or "learning" as "part of a process," or waiting for "the plan to work." That includes the Redskins, who've spent so much money for so many years that it is almost incomprehensible that they are still re-re-redefining themselves. After decades of this, with the huge exception of the first Gibbs era, don't you just want to scream?

Life in pro sports transforms itself before our eyes so quickly it's sometimes hard to fathom the sudden twists. Until the Caps won 11 of their last 12 games to reach the playoffs last season, even they were half-formed. But they were 37-17-7 under Boudreau last season and are 13-9-3 this season despite depleted ranks.

How do you explain such gyrations of franchise fortune?

"What it means is that we really did put a long-term plan in place," McPhee said, "and it really did work."

For the moment, the Caps could be mistaken for their staggering Washington brethren in other sports. But by Christmas, they expect all their now-empty red stockings to be filled, including all four of their wounded defensemen.

Then, perhaps, the traffic flow from Hershey will slow. And the Caps can speed up again toward a future that once seemed remote but is now arriving fast.

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