Washington Capitals respond after Bruce Boudreau cracks the whip a bit

Alexander Semin celebrates after scoring his third goal against the Lightning.
Alexander Semin celebrates after scoring his third goal against the Lightning. (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 12:07 AM

Sometimes you don't know that a team has even undergone a stress test until the moment has passed. But this week, in the words of everyone from Coach Bruce Boudreau to General Manager George McPhee to star Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals had their first real challenge of the season, one which could have divided the team but, instead, appears to have united it.

"I think the guys were [bleeped]. We took a lot of heat. We took a lot of flak this week," Boudreau said Friday after the Caps crushed Tampa Bay, 6-0, at Verizon Center.

Had his Caps just played a perfect hockey game?

A mischievous but suppressed smile played on Boudreau's face. "I don't know if it was perfect, but it was as good as we've played all year," said Boudreau, no small feat since his team leads the NHL in points (34) with a 16-6-2 record.

In that superb game, the Caps scored two power-play goals while killing a five-on-three penalty themselves. Alexander Semin had a hat trick while also doing rugged duty as a penalty-killer. The Caps' defense was so tight that Semyon Varlamov, in his second start after returning from a groin injury, only had to stop 17 shots in his shutout. Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson each had a pair of assists against a Lightning team that had won its previous five games. Et cetera.

If the Caps look back on the last four days as a turning point in their year, or at least the regular season, don't be surprised. Less than 100 hours earlier, the NHL was watching and listening to discover what explosions might emanate from the Caps.

On Monday, after Washington lost its third game in a row, and second straight 5-0 road trouncing, Boudreau gave a small postgame news conference as stars Ovechkin and Semin, as well as McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis, stood nearby.

As Boudreau gave a scathing evaluation of his team, and especially his first line of Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom, there was laughter in the hallway. Perhaps it came from Ilya Kovalchuk, a Russian from victorious New Jersey, who was talking with his countrymen, Ovechkin and Semin.

Ex-teammates or old friends bump into each other after games in all sports and sometimes somebody laughs. Who cares? It's pro games, not pro warfare. But the Caps, especially since their historic implosion in the playoffs in April, have been a team under scrutiny, an NHL target, a club with worlds of talent but questions about its collective personality and chemistry.

Besides, Boudreau had just said of his first line: "They're struggling. So, I had to break them up . . . this side of sitting all of them. . . . It's everybody's fault. If you go 8-0-1, then you go for a crap, I know it happens but it hasn't happened to us. I don't like it.

"We'll make up for it [at practice] tomorrow."

So, the NHL grapevine buzzed. Who was laughing after a 5-0 loss as the coach fumed?

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