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?
"Ovechkin didn't do any laughing," said Boudreau on Sunday. "It wasn't him."
"Ted and I were right there," said McPhee on Sunday. Implying, not a problem. But the Caps' brass wasn't happy either.
On Tuesday, the Caps endured a punishing Boudreau practice and, when Wednesday's lineups were announced, Ovechkin, the Great 8, the two-time MVP, had changed positions for the first time in his NHL career, from left wing to right wing. Oh, just a temporary move, a little Boudreau twist to try to get Ovie's "legs moving" in more open ice.
But, in a subtle way, it was more. Though it was early in an interminable 82-game NHL season, all of it a mere prelude to the playoffs when the Caps will really be judged, Boudreau had cracked his coach's whip. Not too loudly, but distinctly. Would his players, especially the best of them, react as he hoped?
"He worked us hard," Ovechkin said of the practice. That day, Boudreau and Ovechkin had a chat in the stands. What happens if the coach snaps the whip and the captain ignores it?
"No, it is our job to react right," Ovechkin said. "And we do it. You see the result."
The next night in Carolina, playing his new position, Ovechkin had 10 shots on goal and two assists in a 3-2 Caps win that could have been much more lopsided.
"The game in Carolina was the steppingstone to this game," Boudreau said. "They dug deep. They dug deep [against Tampa Bay], too, and will try to dig down on Sunday" at home against the Hurricanes.
For the Caps, their three-game slide and all "the heat and flak" that the team took this week was actually a teachable moment.
"Your best players have to be coachable or you have no chance," McPhee said. "Our best players have bought in."
As McPhee spoke, a player walked past. "See you, George," Ovechkin said.
"For Ovie, this year isn't about points or trophies," McPhee said. However, it is about making subtle changes - in his game and other players' games as well - that may give the Caps flexibility in the playoffs if they start skidding.
"Ovie's experience at right wing might help us some time," McPhee said. "Bruce does a nice job of working different lines. Ovechkin might take 25 shifts but with eight different players."
All of the Caps' hierarchy knows how high expectations are this season. And justifiably. "I think we're a better team than we were last year, both in team construction and in talent," McPhee said. "But it's about playing hard every night."
The Caps certainly have the tools. Excellent young defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner are now fully part of the mix. The gifted Varlamov and early-season star Michal Neuvirth give the Caps the possibility of two young star goalies.
Also, the team enigma of the past year, Semin, may be having a breakout season as an all-around star, already amassing 17 goals in 24 games. "He has played very, very well all year," McPhee said. "And Bruce is rewarding him [for his penalty-killing work] with extra minutes."
Is that just a byproduct of Semin being in his contract year?
"You'd like to have 'em all in the last year of their contract every year. Sparky Anderson said that," McPhee said. "No, it's more. His consistency has really improved. He's figured it out."
Can the same be said of the Caps as a group?
Six months is a long time to wait for atonement. And 82 tough battles is an eternity to keep an ideal balance between maximizing your ability as a team, yet not exhausting yourselves before April. How much do you grind? How often do you snap the whip?
"Sometimes this has to happen," Ovechkin of the ugly three-game skid. "It's good when it's early [in the season]. Maybe we needed that. I hope we are going to play better now. It's kind of a new start for us."
Then he paused. "We reloaded our weapons," Ovechkin said.