Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau was the object of scrutiny when his team was struggling earlier this season. The team’s transformation into the Eastern Conference’s top playoff seed is perhaps Boudreau’s virtuoso performance. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

This hockey season in Washington began much like the previous one. The Capitals won 18 of their first 26 games, beating opponents most nights with a high-octane offense that had become the team’s signature under Coach Bruce Boudreau. But during a 17-day stretch before Christmas, that all changed.

Goals became scarce. The power play evaporated. Losses mounted. This was all new to Boudreau; in 18 previous seasons as a coach at various levels of professional hockey, he had never lost more than four in a row.

“What I would do, a lot — and I just thought I was getting old — I would get into my car and drive and miss all the turns I was supposed to make,” Boudreau recalled. “Or I would stop and think, ‘Did I just go through a red light? Or was it green?’

“I was just thinking. My mind was somewhere else.”

Though Capitals owner Ted Leonsis scoffs at the notion — “We weren’t close to pressing a panic button,” he said — scrutiny over Boudreau’s job security increased, among fans and the blogosphere.

Such speculation, and the losing that inspired it, seem distant memories for Boudreau and the Capitals, who open the playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s top seed for the second straight season Wednesday night. But the transformation that has taken place over the months in between — perhaps Boudreau’s virtuoso performance — serves as testimony to how much Boudreau lives the game, and how much this Capitals team needs him.

“I know [Pittsburgh Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma] said he goes home and it’s all done,” said Boudreau’s wife, Crystal. “Hockey is our whole life. We all live and breathe for the Caps. If it’s bad at work, it’s bad at home.”

After a pause, she added: “This is something we do as a family. We know what business we’re in. We knew where it could go.”

‘Someone to talk to’

During the winless streak, which eventually reached eight games, the Boudreaus discussed each defeat on the ride home from Verizon Center. When the Capitals were on the road, the coach’s first phone call was to General Manager George McPhee. His second was to Crystal.

“You got to have someone to talk to,” Bruce Boudreau said. “She knows the game really well. And you want somebody when you’re really low, not to talk back, but to agree with everything you say.”

The previous December, holiday cheer filled the Boudreau home as the Capitals sprinted to first place overall in the NHL. This season, it was filled with HBO cameras filming scenes for “24/7”, which only fueled the anxiety.

“We went 0-6-2, and after what we had done, it seems ludicrous to think that that could happen,” he said about the possibility of getting fired. “But I’m also not dumb. I was in the minors for 30 years and you see this happens in our business all the time. People who say they don’t ever think about it are nuts or are not telling the truth.”

After games, Boudreau often sat on the couch in the family room, staring blankly at the television screen. The normally chatty coach kept his thoughts to himself, despite Crystal’s best efforts to get him to open up. The silence was occasionally broken by a ringing telephone.

“Him and his coaches would get on the phone,” Crystal said. “But I don’t think they would actually talk to each another. One would throw out a sentence, then they would both sit on the phone for 10 minutes thinking about it. Then it was, ‘Nah, that ain’t gonna work.’ Let’s try something else.”

Boudreau said a 7-0 loss to the Rangers on Dec. 12 served as both “the low point in my life” and “our ‘holy smokes’ moment.”

The next morning, he and McPhee discussed the need to overhaul the team’s style of play into a more defensive system. What could have seemed the final act of a lame-duck coach instead became the turning point of the season.

Inside the Capitals’ locker room, there was never a sense that Boudreau had run out of ideas or that players had stopped believing in him.

Relationships pay off

Known as a players’ coach, Boudreau has been criticized for being too cozy with those inside the dressing room. But that tight relationship with his players served him well.

“I remember being really upset because a fan had brought a sign in warmup,” forward Brooks Laich said. “It was a big sign and it said, ‘Fire Boudreau’. I don’t think he’s really been appreciated for the job he’s done around here. I remember lining up two pucks, stopping and taking two slap shots right at the glass, right at the guy holding the sign. I wanted to make my thoughts known.”

The Capitals lost, 3-2, that night to the Avalanche, despite outshooting their opponent, 42-26. Laich never told Boudreau about the sign, and the coach said he never saw it.

A day later, after they were routed by the Rangers, Laich sought out Boudreau.

“I remember having a chat with him after the New York game and telling him the stuff that he usually tells us,” Laich added. “I said: ‘A lot of times you give us the positive motivation. But I want to tell you that you’re a good [expletive] coach. Don’t you forget that. I don’t care what you’re hearing, what people in the paper are writing, you haven’t lost the room, you haven’t lost me.’”

Boudreau recalled: “I remember him saying it because I’ll never forget it.”

But that doesn’t mean Boudreau wasn’t hard on them when it was needed.

“People think I’m the guy in the commercials but there’s two totally different sides of me,” he said. “I would take Alex [Ovechkin] in during individual meetings and say, ‘I need you tonight. I need you to start doing this. I would show him what he wasn’t doing compared to before and he’d look at me and say, ‘Oh my God.’ ”

Proof of the bond between the players and their coach came in Ottawa.

The Capitals were dangerously close to losing a ninth straight game after falling behind the Senators 2-0 early. Boudreau addressed the team after the first period.

“I said to the guys, this is a very important part of our year right now,” he said. “We had such a good lead that we were just now falling into the middle of the pack. I said, very calmly, ‘I can’t express to you how important this is to us as a group if we all want to stay together, how this game ends.”

The Capitals rallied during a three-goal third period and held on for a 3-2 victory.

“There was talk everywhere, from media and from all different directions, that if we didn’t start winning that he was going to get fired,” winger Eric Fehr said. “It definitely came up in a few meetings and in conversations between guys. We rallied around him.”

After last April’s historic first-round collapse against Montreal, Boudreau was roundly criticized for his team’s inability to adapt on the fly. It was run-and-gun, and if that didn’t work, they were in a difficult spot.

These Capitals, though, will open the postseason as the most complete team of Boudreau’s tenure. With that, however, comes increased expectations for a team and a coach, who only four months ago looked as though they had lost their way.

“Maybe it’s fate,” Boudreau said of the December adjustment and the struggles that necessitated it. “I’m stubborn enough to think that we definitely could have won the other way. But when you look at it, if we keep buying in . . .

He trailed off mid-sentence as carefully measured his response.

“We’re not scoring,” he added with a smile, “but at the same time, we score enough.”