With the Olympics behind, the Washington Capitals are back where they belong.
Thank goodness, the red-light special has come home again. After a 24-day forced hiatus, in which not a single Washington Capital won bupkus at the Sidney Games, the greatest show on ice returned from that useless exhibition tournament in British Columbia.
The day after the trading deadline -- when George "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse" McPhee put the finishing touches on Coach Bruce Boudreau's chalice-or-bust roster -- the men of winter came back to Verizon Center to roars and scores.
This is the building where they have remarkably not lost a hockey game this calendar year and hope to play into the summer. It is the building where everything seems good and right about Washington sports -- as long as the ice is left in place.
"My job's done; it's on Bruce now," McPhee, the Caps' general manager, said Thursday, at least half-joking. Hours later, one of his newest Cup crusaders, Scott Walker, cleaned up two messes to the left of the crease in the third period to repel the game but ultimately inferior Tampa Bay Lightning -- because, really, isn't everybody inferior that deigns to step on the ice with Washington these days?
Not missing a beat, as if five of their best players had never been shipped to Vancouver for slave labor camouflaged in patriotism, the Caps won for the 12th straight time before their moderately loud denizens.
The highlight after Walker was Nicklas Backstrom, on loan from Sweden until 2014. He helped stone the attackers from the other side, all right -- without his stick! (It had been snapped in half moments earlier.)
While helping his team kill off three straight penalties at the end of the second period, a defenseless Backstrom blocked the puck with the side of his leg and other unknown parts of his body. Daring attackers to fire at him, he was like the disturbed child playing dodgeball who asks to be hit because he likes the pain.
Alex Ovechkin, on loan to Washington from the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee, rumbled up ice and fired rockets from all angles.
Mike Knuble, on loan from his family because neither Canada nor Team USA will claim him on their Olympic team anymore, scored twice in the crease.
Backie was Backie. Ovie was Ovie. K-noobes was K-noobes. And Eric Belanger, the other key newcomer after Walker, fit in as well in his first night with his new teammates.
All seemed well and good in Capsville for much of the night. Just like old times, right?
Well, yes and no.
Nearly a month after they left home, there had to be a gnawing question in the gut of some of the loyalists, a refrain that goes something like this:
Did George do enough?
They're undeniably a little grittier after acquiring Walker and Belanger. And after Brian Pothier, McPhee was very savvy and smart in not giving up much to acquire four players -- including re-acquiring Milan Jurcina -- who could give Washington the edge it needs in May and June.
But the Caps clearly gambled on staying with their current goaltending situation. Semyon Varlamov looked rusty in the net, giving up four goals. The Russian wunderkind who made the most unimaginable save against Sidney Crosby in Game 1 of the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last May still appears as if he is getting completely healthy. Until that happens, Varly is not gnarly.
José Theodore was clutch in Buffalo in the final minutes on Wednesday night, with the Sabres furiously trying to tie the Caps in their first game back from the Olympic break. If he can keep up that kind of play, he's Boudreau's guy in a month or two. But consistency has been elusive. Theodore almost plays better when he's benched. When his confidence is toyed with and he becomes a little angry, he's a nails goalie. When he knows the job is his, complacency occasionally sets in.
There is one other concern no one is talking about: Matt Bradley walked through an arena corridor moments before faceoff -- in street clothes. David Steckel was in civvies too. With Belanger and Walker now in the mix, Boyd Gordon may also see his minutes and ice time sliced.
The Caps had a beautiful thing going when they won 14 straight games before the Olympic break; it's called chemistry, knowing everything about whom you play with. If you're Alexander Semin, you know how many inches you have to flick the puck in front of Tomas Fleishmann.
Players like Brads and Stecks -- yes, role players get cheesy nicknames too in hockey -- were a major reason why the stars were allowed to shine. Shuffling lineups is essentially playing with people's livelihoods, and so it wouldn't be wrong for anyone to wonder whether change was made for change's sake.
But that's nitpicking now. As good as they have looked the past two regular seasons, the Caps needed a bit more grit for the playoff grind. McPhee got it for them; this being hockey, Walker actually seems to have more teeth missing than goals scored (five) this season.
They have everything now, everything except bona fide veteran playoff experience and the Holy Grail of hockey it can ultimately bring. And there's only way to get it: keep winning.
Bottom line, the red-light special is back. The Caps won. On a Thursday night at Verizon Center, what kind of real puckhead could possibly complain about that? Beats sending them away to solitary confinement in Vancouver.