Alex Ovechkin is congratulated by teammates after a goal at Carolina earlier this month. (Gerry Broome/AP)
Columnist

Thomas Boswell

Why aren't the Washington Capitals lying on their backs at center ice this season with their skates in the air, whimpering their way to a dismal season? If any team in any sport had reason to feel gut-shot, this is the one and now is the time.

How can the Caps (26-13-3) be in first place in the Metropolitan Division with the second-most points in the Eastern Conference? How can they be on a 15-3-2 streak that started just before Thanksgiving?

How dare they be proud of themselves after what they have — over the past two years, dozen years and 33 seasons — perpetrated in the name of hockey perfidy?

And by what right, after losing Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk, Nate Schmidt and Daniel Winnik, who had 175 points and 6,497 minutes last season, do the Caps insist on continuing to win with a team that includes four rookies and a couple of low-priced pickups?

At this point, convention demands that all the Caps' sins be listed in ascending order of gravity, from blowing a two-game series lead to the New York Islanders in the first round in '85 to losing to Pittsburgh in the second round the past two years despite winning the Presidents' Trophy. Twice, the Pens drank from Lord Stanley's Cup. The Caps got the spittle.

But we won't. Because you already know. And are exhausted with it. You may even have sworn to pay less attention to the Caps. Or none. What "good story" could possibly arise from this generational mess?

Yet a narrative is beginning to form — just beginning, mind you — around this new team.

"In hockey, culture trumps everything," Coach Barry Trotz said.

We shall see about that. Can a self-renewing winning culture, with tight bonds between players and mutual accountability, grow out of such hard and unforgiving ground? Whatever the answer, the way this franchise has responded to last season's incredibly demoralizing defeat — with its all-in, mortgage-the-future squad losing to the injury-smashed Pens — deserves both respect and an explanation.

First, the Caps did something they often have avoided: They faced just how emotionally ugly their situation was and how psychologically damaging. First, the coaching staff decided to "let the players heal." And find their way slowly. Don't keep a thumb on them. Let them make mistakes, especially the rookies.

"We had to get through the misery of . . . of . . . of how we finished last year," Trotz said, not mentioning details. "There was a lot of hurt."

However, after 20 games, enough was enough. After a 6-3 loss in Nashville and a 6-2 drubbing in Colorado, as their record fell to 10-9-1 and their rank in the NHL dropped into the bottom half of the league, Trotz decided to speak.

"We aired some things out during that long trip back from Colorado. It got really quiet," Trotz said. "We just said, 'We have to come together.' "

"I said some things that . . ." Trotz paused to chuckle, "the players probably agreed with. Things that were very truthful — just hard reality, the harsh reality of what direction we wanted to go and how we were going to do it. We came back [home], and I think the group, the core, said either, 'He's right' or, 'Let's take this road and see what happens.' And they did."

The Caps split two games, then began their current streak, including a win Sunday over St. Louis on Nicklas Backstrom's goal in overtime. Seven of their past nine games have gone to overtime, so good fortune as well as grit is in play here.

Don't get giddy. The Caps certainly aren't. Part of that plane ride of pain was facing the reality that they aren't the same team they have been in recent years, and no one knows when or if they'll be that talented again. But you still demand the most of yourself, take the risks that are necessary to defend a teammate's back and, most important, always expect victory, even though it comes harder now.

"That's what we've been doing the last month and a half: finding ways to win," winger Brett Connolly said, adding later, "I don't think a lot of people thought we would be here at the beginning of the year after the way our season started. The character in this room is showing. Guys are not giving in."

Goalie Braden Holtby has been the team's best player, while Alex Ovechkin, tied for the league lead in goals (27), has been its most surprising, hitting opponents less but the back of the net more. Four rookies, and two inexpensive journeymen, now form 30 percent of a team that was 100 percent stars or stalwarts last season.

"Our young players have come a long way in a short time — [Christian] Djoos, [Madison] Bowey, [Jakub] Vrana. But they needed some games to learn. And Tom Wilson has filled a bigger role," center Lars Eller said, referring to the big winger with 18 points who's showing his whole game, as well as his right cross.

"We're better than I thought we would be."

Nonetheless, the Caps' margin of error is now skate-blade thin. They take the fewest shots on goal in the NHL and have regressed to the middle of the pack on both the power play and the penalty kill. Every game hinges on Holtby's reflexes.

"We did win," said Holtby, after his three brilliant stops late in the third period and in overtime saved Sunday's game. "But they had opportunities to put the game away. We did a great job of burying our chances, but . . ."

Holtby paused. This is one of those split seconds of unconscious response when you see whether accountability, or letting yourself off the hook because the going has gotten tough, is your competitive default setting.

"It's my job to step up and make those saves," Holtby said. End of story.

The Caps may have set eternally unbreakable records for disappointment, as well as use of the word "choke" by anyone who has ever seen a hockey stick. But at least, in a cruel, backhanded way, they have made hockey easier in one respect.

No one expects a darn thing out of them now. (Insert snarky troll remark here.)

"There's been a lot of pressure on this team in the last couple of years," says Trotz, who has spoken to head coach friends on other teams who now bare some of those expectations. "They say, 'Man, this is really a grind. There's a lot more pressure this year.' And I'm like, 'Don't talk to me. I know what it is.'

"So, we don't have any expectations. Have fun playing the game. We just want to be a good team and getting better — and way better at the end of the year."

Now may be the time when the Caps find out whether several years of team-bonding projects endorsed by Trotz and General Manager Brian MacLellan have some unmeasurable but still valuable effect. Does it matter if a whole team visits the Naval Academy, the FBI or Joint Base Andrews together for a shared experience or, on road trips, finds a way to bowl, throw darts or even go curling?

"Well, it's was certainly new around here," one member of the Caps said.

One look at the standings, and at the Caps' narrow goal differential (132 to 120), shows that this team isn't even certain to make the playoffs.

"It's pretty crazy," Trotz said of weeks such as this, with four games, when standings can flip.

But, for half a season, these Caps have restored some dignity, formed a hybrid old-and-new team and, in the process, had both fun and wins.

As Ovechkin starts to leave the arena with a fist full of hockey sticks, Trotz yells at his star, like a cop at a thief, "You pay for those?"

"I have a special contract deal," quips Ovechkin, deadpan.

"Oh, take as many as you want," Trotz says.

And they smile. On the Capitals, who thought that could ever happen again?