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Washington Capitals find themselves flying high, in rare air

Shootout goals from Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Mike Knuble lift Washington over rival Pittsburgh for the third time in three meetings this season.

Just two years ago, they struggled to make the playoffs. Last year, they emerged as contenders but collapsed in Game 7 at home against the eventual champion Penguins. Now, riding a three-month torrid stretch, they suddenly moved to the brink of NHL dominance. The Caps' hardest work by far is still ahead. But the regular season groundwork has been laid spectacularly.

How good are the Caps right now? Since World War II, only two pro sports teams in Washington -- whether in the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL -- have had the top regular season record in their sport and led their league in scoring differential, too. Both were Redskins teams under Joe Gibbs that went to the Super Bowl after the '83 and '91 seasons -- one won, one lost.

Before that? All the way back to 1901, when the Senators joined the American League, only two other Washington teams had the best records and the best scoring margins in their sports -- true dominance -- the '40 Redskins of Sammy Baugh and the '33 Senators. No, this doesn't happen often.

"Well, we need to break into that group," said Boudreau.

The Caps are on the verge of joining that company. Not only have they outscored their foes by 81 goals but could become only the second NHL team in 14 years to amass more than 118 points. "We're having a phenomenal season," said Caps General Manager George McPhee, actually finding wood to knock on. "And our Hershey farm team is having a better year than we are."

Few teams in NHL history have had more depth in potent scorers. Only one team has ever had 11 20-goal scorers. But the Caps may end up this season with 11 15-goal scorers. That's a significant gap, but it still shows their level of firepower.

Against the potent Pens on Wednesday, the Caps had 10 players on pace for 40 points to six for Pittsburgh. And the Caps had seven players with 20 goals already to four for the Pens.

When faced with an incipient juggernaut, but one that has not yet taken flight in the postseason, arch rivals can have one of two reactions: acknowledge the obvious or deny credit as long as possible and hope it never has to be given. So, meet the extremes on the Pens -- Guerin, quoted earlier, and star Sidney Crosby.

Asked his appraisal of the Caps on Wednesday, Crosby said, "They're one of a bunch, probably. I don't think there is any clean-cut number one. They've got a ton of depth and play a fast game."

If Crosby isn't terribly impressed yet, others will be after this Caps win. "The Pens were a determined gritty bunch tonight," said Boudreau, whose team had only one power play to the Pens' five. "I was proud of the way we came back -- in the third period and in the shootout. . . . There were lots of reasons to get down."

However, there was one final reason to feel very "up." In his whole career, the muck-in-front-of-the-goal Knuble had never scored a goal in a shootout, much less a winner. He'd almost never been tapped to try. "I was the 13th guy out of 15 once," he laughed.

Yet Boudreau touched him on the shoulder just a minute before his final shot. "I doubt I'll ever have another chance to do that," Knuble said of his game-winner. "I told Bruce after the game, 'I don't like you when you do that.' "

"I just had a gut feeling," said the coach. "And that's a big gut."

That's the way it's been running for the Caps all season. These years don't come often, for a town or team. When the wave is finally yours, ride it.

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