Promising Capitals Shouldn't Miss a Chance to Raise a Banner

By John Feinstein
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Capitals made a mistake Saturday night, albeit a minor one.

It wasn't giving up three late goals to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a game that was over after 14 minutes. That's something a good coach such as Bruce Boudreau can harp on in practice for a couple of days, but in the course of an 82-game season, letting up with a 6-1 lead in the third period isn't something to really worry about.

The mistake actually came before the puck was dropped: Rather than slowly raising its 2009 Southeast Division championship banner to the rafters, the team decided to merely unfurl it. It was almost as if the Caps were saying, "This isn't good enough, so we'll just unfurl it fast and move on." That position is defensible but still wrong, for a couple of reasons.

You don't ever minimize an achievement, even if it isn't the one you're ultimately after. To begin with, that title was who the Caps were last year. They were very good, but not as good as the Penguins, who went on to win the Cup by winning Game 7 in Detroit even with Sidney Crosby watching during the final period.

So, to salute what the Caps did achieve last season, is the right thing to do. There's no shame in being a division champion and losing in seven games -- the first six of which produced absolutely superb hockey on both sides -- to the eventual Cup champions.

There's also the karma issue. Anyone who has followed sports has seen this before: Team refusing to cut down the nets after winning a conference championship or a regional championship because "those aren't the nets we're after" loses shortly thereafter and never gets to celebrate anything. In 1989, after upsetting Georgetown in the East Region final, Duke decided to leave the nets behind in the Meadowlands. The Blue Devils went to Seattle and got spanked by Seton Hall a week later.

"I will never make that mistake again," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said afterward.

Roy Williams and Kansas did the same thing in 2002. Same result: Maryland dominated the Jayhawks in Atlanta the following weekend. Williams hasn't missed any net-cuttings since.

The good news is that the Caps at least hung the banner, albeit modestly.

The larger question of course is just how good can this team be? The first two nights were certainly encouraging, especially the relatively easy opening night win in Boston over the team that had the most points in the Eastern Conference last season. The young stars all want to atone for the Game 7 clunker against the Penguins. Adding Mike Knuble will help a lot, especially in the playoffs, when you need someone who can't get easily pushed from the front of the net.

There is still the goaltending question. Last February, this column asked whether Jose Theodore was the guy to get it done in games that mattered most. A number of Caps fans answered angrily that Theodore would be just fine in April and May. Well, he lasted one game in April and came on to mop up in the final game in May after Semyon Varlamov was forced into the breach and performed admirably in rescuing the Rangers series and almost pulling out the Pittsburgh series.

Here we are five months later, and there are still goaltending issues. Theodore this summer went through the worst tragedy any human being can endure: the loss of a child. There is simply no way to know how that will affect his play this season. He played well in Boston, but that's one game. It may be that being on the ice is his escape and that, combined with being on the last year of his contract, will make him the goalie he was years ago in Montreal.

If not, Varlamov has certainly flashed great potential and is now a playoff-toughened goalie after last season. Whether he can rise to that next level, that of a goalie who steals games the way Marc-Andre Fleury did last spring, is another question.

There is absolutely no doubt this is a very good team with the potential to be great. There is also no doubt that right now the route to the Cup goes through Pittsburgh, and there are also several other teams that are potentially dangerous including Boston (opening night not withstanding) and the Flyers in the East, and Detroit (always), Chicago (another rising young team) and San Jose (they have to break their playoff hex at some point don't they?) in the West.

Health is always an issue for any contender. The good news for the Caps is that Alex Ovechkin is far less fragile than Crosby who is a bit like a race horse -- spectacular to watch when healthy, but often back in the barn with some kind of health problem. It would also be helpful if Alexander Semin or Niklas Backstrom could emerge as the kind of threat that Evgeny Malkin has become.

In all though, there is plenty of reason to hope. The Caps have been to one Stanley Cup final (1998) and were swept by Detroit. This is a town starved for not only a winner but a truly outstanding team. Maryland won a national championship in 2002, and the Redskins won the Super Bowl in January 1992. That's it for the last 20 years, and winters in the Verizon Center have been especially barren, with the Wizards last reaching a conference final back when the Capital Centre was a relatively new building (1979) and the Caps not winning more than a round in any year since '98.

The Caps will win a lot of games this season, and they will have quite a few 6-1 leads. None of it will really matter though until April, May and perhaps June. Ted Leonsis, Boudreau, Ovechkin and company have good reason to believe the banner they raise next October will be the one they want to raise. In the meantime though, downplaying progress -- as in back-to-back division titles -- isn't the way to go.

Most important, it could lead to bad karma.

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