Washington Capitals find themselves flying high, in rare air

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, March 25, 2010; D01

The Pittsburgh Penguins came to Washington with a deeper appreciation of the Capitals, and the danger they posed to the defending Stanley Cup champions, than perhaps anyone in hockey.

"These guys have been top of the league all year by a wide stretch," said veteran Bill Guerin. "They've had a great year, so we're definitely looking at them to see how we measure up."

The Pens, mind you, are the reigning NHL kings. The Pens, also, are the franchise that has cursed the Caps, had their number in the playoffs, for a generation. If any team shouldn't have to worry about how they "measure up" to the Capitals, it's the Pens, even though Washington won their first two meetings this year.

Yet the Pens do fret. And more so now after the Caps won their third straight meeting over Pittsburgh, 4-3, on a shootout goal by Mike Knuble. Once again, this season seems different for the Caps and that sense seems to grow every month. The first time the Caps met the Pens, they stomped them, 6-3, on the road. Then, on Super Bowl Sunday, they trailed 4-1, but won in overtime on Knuble's goal after Alex Ovechkin had a hat trick.

Now this: The Caps trailed 2-1 in the third period, but tied the score on a spectacular takeaway and end-to-end short-handed rush and goal by Alexander Semin. Less than two minutes later, the Caps took the lead with one of their trademark multigoal blitzes as Eric Fehr's deflection put them ahead.

Yet, when the Pens sent the game into overtime with just 3 minutes 4 seconds left in regulation, then took a 2-0 lead in the shootout -- an almost certain defeat. The Caps showed no hint of demoralization and finished the night with consecutive saves by José Theodore and three straight goals by Ovechkin, Semin and the flashless vet Knuble.

Make no mistake, this meeting meant more to the Pens, though they had to play without injured Sergei Gonchar and Evgeni Malkin, than it did for the Caps. It was the Pens who needed to create a bit of doubt. Instead, they left with a tad more of their own.

This night was yet another in a sequence of wakeup calls for the whole NHL. The Caps are on the verge of remarkable things -- deeds that are within their current capacity, not parts of some future dream. With excellence comes expectation and pressure. It can't be escaped.

Now, in just a few weeks, it will arrive, because the Caps themselves have arrived, not as contenders but as a power. The Power? The next several weeks, or months, will decide that.

"It's a lot of pressure to have the best record in the league," said Coach Bruce Boudreau, whose team will almost certainly have that distinction, riding as it is on a current pace of 121 points.

Only seven of 23 Presidents' Trophy winners have won the Cup. The regular season means a lot -- if you go on and win.

Rarely does a young team rise to the top of its sport so fast that it leaves almost everyone, except those on the squad itself, gasping in the wake of their accomplishments. But, at this moment, the Capitals keep their followers dashing to catch up with their constantly accelerating prowess.

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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