To get even better, Washington Capitals risk tinkering with what they've built

Newly acquired Scott Walker had a smashing debut for the Capitals, scoring two goals in Thursday's win over the Lightning.
Newly acquired Scott Walker had a smashing debut for the Capitals, scoring two goals in Thursday's win over the Lightning. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)

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By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 6, 2010

Almost everyone in pro sports starts as a perfectionist. Some slip. But most keep the initial passion for constant improvement that originally drove them to the top. In particular, those who become coaches or general managers tend to be extreme examples of the breed: Nothing's ever quite good enough.

Usually, when you hear words like "We can always get better" from people such as Bruce Boudreau or George McPhee of the Caps, there's no harm done. It's in their hockey DNA.

But every once in a while, when a team is playing at an almost otherworldly level, when it is atop its entire sport and its internal chemistry seems nearly perfect, you hold your breath. Because the same perfectionism that created greatness will try to improve it.

Sometimes it works. You get a world champ. But, sometimes, the last twist of the screwdriver is the one that cracks the wood.

That's why the Capitals are both giddy at getting Joe Corvo, Eric Belanger, Scott Walker and Milan Jurcina at the trade deadline Wednesday and willing to admit that it concerns them.

With a 43-13-8 record and an insane 255 goals -- 23 percent more than any other team and 46 percent above the NHL median -- the Capitals are ready to get just a little better; unless they break up a full house to go for four of a kind and lose the pot.

"The biggest fear is they are all good players, but we got good players. . . . [For example] Corvo is a great power-play guy. Unfortunately, we have two great power-play guys," said Boudreau, the coach who faces a high-speed integration challenge.

Boudreau spoke after Thursday's victory over Tampa Bay in which Walker scored two goals, but stalwarts David Steckel and Matt Bradley weren't even in uniform because the Caps now have too many good players to suit up on any one night.

"It's a challenge, mixing in four good players when you're just coming off 15-1-2 and everybody is in well-defined roles and clicking," he said. "This is going to be a 10-game experiment to see who fits. The best are going to play. But you've got to give people equal chances. Because we have a big lead [in the standings], it's a luxury. We can do some experimenting. But we can't keep experimenting right to the start of the playoffs. With five to seven games left, we've got to make our decisions and go with it."

Gulp. Two days ago, the Caps figured to be touch-and-go in tough playoff series if they play Pittsburgh, San Jose or Chicago. Now -- in theory -- they have added a penalty-killing and faceoff specialist (Belanger), a swift defenseman with a big power-play slap shot (Corvo) and a gritty, scrambling get-under-your-skin veteran (Walker). Besides, they get back an old Caps friend, Milan "Juice" Jurcina.

What prompted the tweaking? On Super Bowl Sunday, the Caps ran their franchise-record win streak to 14 games, beating the Pens. Then, in their last three games before the Olympic break, the Caps came up one goal short three times -- once in overtime, once in a shootout.

Were those three games a message to avoid complacency? Or a warning against ruining the very good in a quest for the perfect?


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