One of the Washington Capitals' new owners, Jon Ledecky, stood in an empty dressing room at MCI Center late Tuesday night, calling his team the "Cardiac Kids." Another owner, Ted Leonsis, came strutting down the hall, beaming. The third investor, Dick Patrick, shook hands with the club's senior vice president, Declan Bolger, both still shocked by the last-minute comeback that had just transpired.
They have watched their new acquisition play four games and already are completely enthralled. The Capitals, a team marred by injuries and an inability to score last season, are playing with a visible confidence, pounding opponents in the third period and coming from behind to win. What hardly seemed possible a year ago is becoming a hallmark of a young and hungry squad this season. And the result has a pristine downtown arena rocking along to their timely goals and the owner's vibrant combination of rock music and video clips.
"It's a different kind of enthusiasm in the building now," Coach Ron Wilson said. "And I think our players are going to start to feed off it. I think guys are excited about the way things are going. There's a different kind of excitement in our room--it's not like we're just here playing and nobody knows who we are. The new owners are trying to create an interest and identity for the team, and that's something the players identify with. You start to get the strange sense we had a couple of years ago."
Two years ago, the Capitals reached the Stanley Cup finals. It's much too soon to think about such lofty goals now. But returning to the playoffs becomes much more realistic with each spirited victory. The Capitals rallied from one goal down to beat Buffalo, scored twice in the third period to tie Los Angeles and came back from 2-0 and 4-3 deficits Tuesday against Philadelphia, as Peter Bondra capped his hat trick in the final minutes. A crowd of about 12,000 was whipped into a frenzy. The Capitals received another boost of confidence after hearing all summer about their flop from the finals to the Eastern Conference basement last season.
"Last year we fell way short of what was expected of us, and I think the fans were really disappointed," goalie Olaf Kolzig said. "And to do what we've done the first two home games has really rejuvenated the fans. We've showed we can bounce back and we are an exciting, rejuvenated team, and you can sense that through the fans. They're boisterous and excited."
The Capitals were just 9-36-4 last season when opponents scored first but are 2-1-1 this season when yielding the first goal. They never rallied from a two-goal deficit in the third period last season, but have already done so this season. They have outscored opponents 5-0 in the third period. Kolzig doesn't have to be perfect to ensure victory. Bondra doesn't have to carry the offense.
"Coming back like that is so good for our overall confidence," Wilson said. "Most teams never win that situation. It's a 90 to 95 chance you're going to lose if you're down after two periods, but we aren't conceding that. I can go in after two periods if we're trailing and guys will believe instead of going, 'Oh, yeah, right.'
"If we accomplish a few things there's no reason to believe we're out of a game. Last year, if we fell behind by two quick goals like we did [Tuesday] night, I'd think, 'Uh, oh, we're in trouble.' But [Tuesday] night, I wasn't worried. I knew we would get back in the game."
Capitals Notes: Defenseman Alexei Tezikov was returned to Portland. . . . Several Capitals met with film director Doug Liman yesterday to film the first in a series of TV ads. . . . With five goals this season, Bondra has passed Mike Ridley for fifth on the team's all-time list with 550. Wilson said he's likely to keep Bondra skating with Andrei Nikolishin, and also plans to juggle his lines much more frequently in games, rather than waiting until the third period to make changes aimed at generating more attack.