After beating Penguins, Capitals have reasons to believe in themselves

Tomas Fleischmann, right, is one of 10 Capitals with at least 10 goals. Above, he celebrates his 17th with Shaone Morrisonn on Thursday.
Tomas Fleischmann, right, is one of 10 Capitals with at least 10 goals. Above, he celebrates his 17th with Shaone Morrisonn on Thursday. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)
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By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, January 23, 2010

Bruce Boudreau hates to watch "SportsCenter" because he knows what will happen. After the opening tease about great highlights on tap, "there'll be 26 minutes of everything except the NHL," the Washington Capitals coach said. "Then hockey gets its two minutes."

However, when the Capitals and Penguins meet, with Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby on the ice, the NHL, for one brief shining morning, actually shares top billing on ESPN with an NBA duel between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

"Maybe we should play Pittsburgh 42 times a year," Boudreau said, chuckling, "but we could have 12 of those games with unlimited rosters and bring in the goons -- skill, brawls, skill."

Despite sore muscles and short sleep, the Caps felt frisky, funny and sassy Friday at practice. More than eight months after their Game 7 collapse at home against the Penguins, the Washington hockey season had a kind of second opening night on Thursday with the Capitals' 6-3 win in the ignominious Igloo.

The Caps lead the NHL in scoring and are atop the Eastern Conference in points (70) with the third-best overall record in the sport. But until they had faced the Stanley Cup champion Penguins, the Capitals' season hadn't seemed to have begun.

Thursday's victory, the best all-around performance of the season in many Caps' eyes, follows wins earlier in the week against the Flyers and the Cup finalist Red Wings. That's not just a declarative statement by the Caps; it's a whole paragraph.

Now, the Caps-Pens, Ovechkin-Crosby matchups really start to arrive -- not 42 of them as we might wish, but perhaps as many as 11 this season. The Caps face the Pens on Super Bowl Sunday, then again in March and April before things get tremendously serious in the bloody-nose springtime.

"If it was a statement [win], then good," said Mike Knuble, who scored for the seventh time in his past eight games and added an assist. "But it does not mean much in June."

What does matter is the identity the Caps are defining for themselves after adding Knuble, a right wing Boudreau calls "the moose in the crease," to team with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on the first line while new Caps center Brendan Morrison and left wing Jason Chimera have boosted the third line.

Suddenly, a powerhouse Caps offense has even more options. So many, at the moment, that foes can seem bewildered. Right now, the average NHL team has 5.7 players with 10 or more goals. The Penguins have seven such scorers, but no team has more than eight except the Caps, who have 10.

Every player on the first three lines has 10 or more goals, plus Mike Green, who leads all defensemen in goals and assists. Eight of Chimera's 10 goals were with Columbus, and acquiring him added yet another scorer to a team so loaded that then-captain Chris Clark was down to the fourth line when dealt.

"We never feel we're out of it. . . . Two goals down shouldn't bother you," Boudreau said. "Other teams don't want to take penalties against us because of our power play [No. 1 in the NHL]. Those are all things the opposition has to think about."

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