Mike Wise: Caps Beat the Elite, Show They Belong

Sports Columnist Mike Wise goes behind his recent piece from the Capitals' key win over the Red Wings at Verizon Center
By Mike Wise
Sunday, February 1, 2009

When you're about 10 points up in your own division and you've already beaten a number of good teams nearly 50 games into the NHL season, the temptation is to believe you're now an upper-echelon franchise. Or at least convince yourself that the purpose and passion needed for a playoff run can be summoned at any moment in April.

The natural onset of complacency that follows is forgivable in the case of the Detroit Red Wings.

Hey, hoist four Stanley Cups in 11 years, midseason funks and all, and your mantra can almost become, "You only have to be in it to win it."

But that same momentary loss of urgency should be downright intolerable for the Capitals, who need to remind themselves constantly that they're much better than a first-round-and-out playoff team. They need to beat the NHL elite now, because May and June haven't exactly been promised over the years.

It's why seeing Alex Ovechkin become flammable in the third period yesterday, scoring twice to put away the defending Stanley Cup champions at a very loud Verizon Center, had to be so heartening to his coach, Bruce Boudreau, and the Capitals' base of believers.

It's why witnessing three players frantically ward off six desperate Red Wings trying to score in the final minute portends real progression for the Caps, today greater Washington's only bona fide contender for a professional sports title.

"I told them that we came together as a team," Boudreau said after the Caps snuffed out the Red Wings' multiple chances in the final 1 minute 25 seconds of a 4-2 win. "Everyone was blocking shots and doing whatever it took to preserve the win. That was nice to see."

How much the Caps can take from this victory is debatable. The Red Wings, after all, were missing two front-line players because of injuries, Tomas Holmstrom and Henrik Zetterberg. Holmstrom is a monster in the crease; without him Detroit's power play, the best in the NHL, suffers. And Zetterberg might be the best two-way player in hockey right now.

Throw in the relative good health of the Capitals and the fact that they beat Ty Conklin, not Chris Osgood, in goal -- and that the Red Wings entered the game in the midst of their first four-game losing streak in nearly a year -- and Detroit was a good bet to go down.

But at the same time, that's the NHL regular season. Before a team's greatness is defined in May and June, they have to show signs in the regular season, and the Caps have now consistently shown they belong in the Boston-Detroit-Montreal conversation.

What really happened on the ice yesterday was another example of why the Capitals can never again be Ovie and the Overachievers.

They deservedly had that label last season, when, 13 games into Boudreau's tenure, they surprised the Red Wings in Detroit before falling in overtime, 4-3. Just a year later, they expected to win and halt their own two-game skid. Ovechkin, who missed so many chances early but persevered, expected to expand his league-leading total of goals to 33.

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