After beating Penguins, Capitals have reasons to believe in themselves

By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, January 23, 2010; D01

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."

In fact, Boudreau is still learning how to maximize this wealth of deep lines. Even the fourth line's Matt Bradley scored a crucial goal against the Red Wings this week.

"Everybody's contributing now," Boudreau said. "Ovechkin, [Alexander] Semin, Backstrom and others are only playing 20, 19, 16 minutes a night, not 24 or 25. So there'll be no fatigue at the end of the season."

To illustrate, in Pittsburgh, Ovechkin outshone Crosby, two goals and an assist to one goal, despite playing nearly three fewer minutes. That little bit of extra rest, times 82 games, can mean a lot in May.

"We see a lot of guys stepping up," Knuble said. "We've got great balance and a strong, strong team overall. It makes it hard for other teams to match up. This team just has a knack for pulling games out. Maybe we are dumb to it. But we get down and we don't stop."

This win in Pittsburgh comes with an asterisk because, as Boudreau is first to note, the Penguins were without four players, including goalie Marc-André Fleury.

"But it shows we can skate with them on most nights," said Boudreau, whose team was without Green and goalie Semyon Varlamov (2.21 goals against average). For now, the Caps don't have to remember all their gulches, canyons and gorges against Pittsburgh in playoffs past. They can focus on what seems like increased maturity and more toughness.

"Those of us who used to be young, now that we have added Knuble and Morrison, it's like we can follow and lead at the same time," said Green, 24.

So far this year, the Caps have been able to shake off even the ugliest mistakes. The Penguins' first goal was a gift as goalie José Theodore accidentally redirected a long pass between his own feet, right to the goal mouth, where Crosby scored a two-inch goal.

Ovechkin, the new Caps captain, quickly skated over.

"I could tell by his expression he didn't want to start laughing in my face," Theodore said. "He said, 'Forget it.' But it'll make the bloopers."

These are the sweet days to be a Cap. They've had three glamorous wins in a week. Their new offensive players are blending, giving them more grit on the boards and physical presence in the crease; hence, 18 more goals than any other NHL team. Backstrom now scores more. Green makes fewer penalties and mistakes in his own end. Theodore has played adequately with Varlamov out.

Even a shattered finger is mildly amusing. Knuble, 37, holds up the pinkie with six screws -- a double-sized still-swollen thing that won't bend.

"It's only a finger," he says, shrugging. "I got four screws in the middle finger [years ago]. It worked out all right.

"My left hand has pretty much turned into a claw anyway."

Boudreau beamed proudly.

"That's what happens when you go to the net with the guts that Knuble has," he said. "My screws are in my head. When they get loose, I get 'em tightened."

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