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.
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  seconds, but then we sometimes play lazy hockey. Everybody knows we are a hard-working team."
But not always. Not at the level they need to be.
"We have to stay passionate. When we play as a team, we are unstoppable," Green said. "And we have to play that way consistently."
What percentage of the time do you mean by consistent? "I'd like to say 98 percent," Green said. But he knows that's not possible. However, a higher percentage than the Caps are currently providing, particularly with their serious lapses against weaker teams, should be expected.
"When we almost come back, it makes it even more frustrating. We'll be kicking ourselves in the morning," Boudreau said. "We had lost eight [potential] points [with two losses each] against Los Angeles and Columbus. With due respect, we are better than they are. See the standings."
The Caps, who play Florida tonight, have disciplinarians from the front office to the coaching staff, to demanding stars like Ovechkin and Green. So they lash themselves in defeat, sing their own praises little when they win.
But somebody needs to if the town is to grasp fully what it is watching.
"When you're a young team, people say: 'Wait your time. Wait and grow.' That's where we are now," Murray said of his Kings. "But there comes a time, even when you are young, that some teams don't have to wait. That's where the Caps are. They're that good."
Murray knows the Caps' flaws just as clearly as the Caps themselves. Before the playoffs, "we must get better on D," Ovechkin said. "Play simple game. Sometimes we get too cute." Boudreau added that, "Our number one priority is to clean up our special teams" on power plays.
And, of course, finding a backup for goalie José Theodore is essential.
"It's good there's still a trading deadline ahead," Murray said when he heard about Johnson's upcoming surgery. "A lot will happen. If Theodore can get it all together, he can probably do what he did in Montreal."
But can he get it together, as he did in his MVP days with Montreal? So far, he has had hot streaks followed by inconsistent games. And will he be overused in the remainder of the regular season if no trade for a veteran can be made?
Meantime, those who see the Caps with the perspective provided by a continent of distance can enjoy the bigger picture.
"I'm happy for the city. I was here for so long. My children were born here," Murray said. "What the Caps are doing now, a piece of that is in my heart. The team deserves it. George [McPhee] and Mr. [Ted] Leonsis deserve it. You go through tough times to get great players. Now they have them."
Every day, as the Caps walk out of their locker room, they see the same words painted in bold letters on the wall.
"If not us, who?"
"If not now, when?"
If you ask Terry Murray, he'd say "the Caps." And maybe sooner than you think.