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Washington Capitals Have the Talent to Be a Great NHL Team Now

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By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, February 7, 2009

Perhaps even Washington Capitals fans don't know how close their team is to greatness. Why else would almost half the crowd leave Thursday night with Washington down by two goals with 93 seconds left? Maybe you need to be 3,000 miles away, like Los Angeles Kings Coach Terry Murray, to see the Caps clearly.

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Both the paradox and the promise of the young, inconsistent but thrilling Capitals were on display in a 5-4 loss to the humble Kings. On one and the same night, the Caps drove their own coach to anger -- "Unacceptable. We'll put a stop to that," fumed Bruce Boudreau -- while leaving Murray, once the Caps' head coach, breathless with admiration.

"They are a great team. I think they are ready now. They can make that step up anytime," said Murray, who coached with his brother Bryan, then after him, for 10 years in Washington. "What they did in the third period against us is the level they need to reach consistently in the playoffs. But to get there, their young players have to take over ownership of that team."

On Thursday, with Los Angeles ahead, 5-3, with 75 seconds left, Boudreau pulled his goalie. The rest was sublime NHL madness. At their best, the Caps' intoxicating top-shelf talent generates an offense so hair-scorching fast and so daringly creative that it can produce a goal and a half-dozen other prime scoring chances after a game appears to be a lost cause.

In their blizzard attack, the Caps almost forced overtime with slap shots from the point, doorstep point-blank rebound attempts, multiple tip-in tries and even a shot off the crossbar with three seconds left. It was a whirlwind few teams could imagine mounting. And it also wasn't quite enough.

Afterward, Boudreau and stars such as Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green saw everything that was wrong with their poor play in the first two periods that put them behind, 4-2.

They also fretted at news that backup goalie Brent Johnson might miss eight weeks because of hip surgery, a blow that may necessitate a trade before the NHL deadline.

"The first period was not pretty. The second was downright ugly. Sloppy, not good. I don't say it for the good of my health," Boudreau growled. Later, calmer, he added: "They're good kids. But sometimes kids don't do their homework. Coaching is a lot like parenting."

"They have the talent and explosiveness to win any game when they really dig in like they did in the third period against us," Murray said. "As a coach, you can prepare for them all you like. But when they take it to another level, it's almost impossible to stop them. Especially Ovechkin and [Alex] Semin. They have the ability to make those kinds of dramatic comebacks against anybody, anytime."

The Capitals' ability to erupt with quick goals is also a kind of curse. Like brilliant students who procrastinate, then cram for an exam and sometimes still get an A, the Caps cut their margin of error too thin at times.

And it drives them crazy.

"How many good shots did we have in the last minute? A lot. I think a lot," said Ovechkin, who in the third period became only the fourth NHL player to score 200 goals in his first four seasons. "I think it is good for us to lose this game. We score in the first [15] seconds, but then we sometimes play lazy hockey. Everybody knows we are a hard-working team."


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