Mike Wise: New Year, New Heights for the Capitals

Alex Ovechkin, who put an exclamation point on the Caps' win with a nifty goal, runs over Tampa Bay winger Jussi Jokinen.
Alex Ovechkin, who put an exclamation point on the Caps' win with a nifty goal, runs over Tampa Bay winger Jussi Jokinen. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Mike Wise
Friday, January 2, 2009

Mike Green burst into a euphoric grin last night after he scored his ninth goal of the season, a laser into the upper right corner of the net that happened because Alex Ovechkin perfectly put the puck on the blade of Green's stick as the young defenseman swooshed toward the crease.

Green looked right at Ovie afterward and affectionately mouthed the word "sick," which many of the young Capitals do when one of their teammates performs a ridiculously amazing feat -- as in, "Dude, what a sick pass."

Indeed, the Caps' kids would call this a very sick start to a new year.

By the time Ovechkin scored the game's final goal of an entertaining, 7-4 scrap over Tampa Bay, firing the puck between a defender's and the goalie's legs as Ovechkin floated laterally across the ice -- would that be a double five-hole? -- Verizon Center exploded on the first day of 2009.

It's a year that increasingly appears to have tantalizing possibility for the Capitals, who now have 53 points, fourth most in the NHL.

Talking Stanley Cup before April is probably getting carried away. Yet the way things are unfolding so well for Bruce Boudreau's young cast of supernovas and aging cast of role players, it would have to qualify as a genuine disappointment if Washington wasn't treated to a deep playoff run sooner than later.

Missing Alexander Semin and Sergei Fedorov -- and a handful of other key players -- because of injuries, Boudreau has pushed all the right buttons to siphon the best out of his depth and the supreme out of his stars.

Fending off Tampa Bay, which closed to 4-3 after two periods and 5-4 in the third, the Caps won for the 10th time in 11 games and are now 16-1-1 in front of their loud, red-clad legions.

It's not just the goal scorers, either. Four defensemen were listed on the score sheet during a three-goal onslaught in the first period. Among them was Sean Collins, a rookie called up from Hershey earlier this season. As defensemen go, he nearly brought up the rear of the organization's depth chart when the season began. But there he was last night, flicking outlet passes, staying in his spot and scoring his first NHL goal -- one of four Capitals to achieve the feat this season.

Matt Bradley, doing his best Nicklas Backstrom impression, had this unreal cross-rink pass in the first period, putting the puck on the tip of David Steckel's stick to the left of the goal, so all Steckel had to do was tap it in.

Backstrom, who couldn't legally drink until turning 21 last month, has been flat-out intoxicating -- easily the best playmaking point guard to compete on F Street in a while.

And though José Theodore ($4.5 million per year) and Brent Johnson ($812,500) don't have much in common, salary-wise, they have similar win-loss records and have been complementing each other tremendously in net; in fact, Johnson's numbers are better.


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