- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2007

When Glen Hanlon was fired on Thanksgiving, it could have been an awkward situation for Washington Capitals assistants Jay Leach and Dean Evason.

The organization promoted Bruce Boudreau from Hershey of the American Hockey League on an interim basis but put him with Hanlon’s assistants. But like the players, Leach has been impressed with the job Boudreau has done to help turn around a season that was nearly lost.

“[The transition] wasn’t that hard at all,” Leach said. “Bruce is a good coach, and he has a good way about him. I think he gets his point across, and he is a good teacher. There is not a lot of nonsense going on. In my mind, I think he’s done terrific.

“Everyone says, ‘Oh, he’s an interim coach.’ We’re all interim coaches. Everyone in the National Hockey League is on an interim basis, and we all know it.”

General manager George McPhee said he would take his time deciding who Hanlon’s full-time successor would be, and he has not wavered from that stance. When asked yesterday whether the team’s recent play was enough to determine Boudreau’s future, he said, “Not yet.”

McPhee may need more time to decide, but the players do not. Many of them, young and old, were willing to stump for Boudreau’s candidacy.

“Do I think he’s an NHL-caliber coach? Absolutely,” defenseman Brian Pothier said. “I think he has been really, really effective and really good on a bunch of different levels, and I’d love to see him stay.”

Added forward Brooks Laich: “I think he has been exactly what they were looking for. He’s brought a new energy and new life around the locker room, and so far we’ve seen the results. I think he’s got the respect of the players. Our results have been great lately. Guys really enjoy him, really enjoy playing for him and look forward to moving forward with him.”

The Caps are 7-4-2 with Boudreau in charge, a stark contrast from the free fall that marred the end of Hanlon’s tenure. At that time, Washington had 13 points in 21 games, and the playoffs — something everyone associated with the team was talking about in the preseason — were a distant thought.

While the Caps remain in last place in the Eastern Conference, they have narrowed the gap. After earning a point against the top team in the league in Detroit on Monday night, Washington was within five points of the final playoff spot.

At one point earlier this season, the Caps were 10 points from the final playoff spot. Now they are 10 points from second place in the conference.

“He took a team that was pretty much down and out on its luck and had no confidence, no real direction,” defenseman Tom Poti said. “He’s given us direction and shown us the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Laich is one of eight current Caps who played for Boudreau in Hershey, and guys like him, David Steckel and Mike Green were all proponents immediately. But the key for a guy with zero coaching experience in the NHL was to get the veteran players to buy in.

Boudreau, who will reach the one-month mark Saturday, has been honest from the start and has shown a willingness to call out anyone on the roster. Veteran players in similar situations might have bristled, but players like Pothier (who was scratched for two games by Boudreau) and goaltender Olie Kolzig have backed the new coach.

“I think everyone in this room really respects Bruce and want to play for him,” Pothier said. “I admire his confidence and his accountability.”

Added Viktor Kozlov, who has been demoted from his usual spot among the top six forwards: “The job he has done is a great job. You look at the progress in the team, and I think that’s the reason. Whenever we have got the points, Bruce has done that.”

McPhee did point out the current stretch of play is what he envisioned at the start of the season. When Boudreau took the job, he said if the team won, everything would take care of itself. The team is winning, and he does not seem to be worried about the interim tag in front of his name.

“I just keep going. I wake up every morning, look out the window and say, ‘I am still in Washington.’ That’s not bad,” Boudreau said. “After 32 years of basically up and down in the minors, you’re not going into [McPhee’s] office every day saying, ‘Hey we won. What about now?’ ”

Added Kolzig: “I think he definitely deserves to lose the interim label. … I consider him the coach. I don’t understand the interim thing anyway. What does that mean — you are going to spend time looking for another coach? I didn’t really look at it as an interim decision. I just look at him as my coach, and I think everybody else does, too.”

Today’s game

MONTREAL CANADIENS at WASHINGTON CAPITALS

When: 7 p.m.

Where: Verizon Center

TV/radio: CSN, AM-1500, FM-107.7

Goalies:Canadiens — Cristobal Huet (7-6-3, 2.35) or Carey Price (9-6-2, 2.72). Capitals — Olie Kolzig (10-14-2, 2.88).

Injuries:Canadiens — Out: C Bryan Smolinski (sprained knee). Questionable: RW Guillaume Latendresse (upper body). Capitals — Out: C/RW Boyd Gordon (broken hand), RW Chris Clark (strained groin), RW Eric Fehr (back/hip).

Outlook: This game will match one of the league’s top power play units (Montreal is at 23.9 percent) against one of the hottest penalty killing groups (Washington is at 89.3 percent since Bruce Boudreau was named interim coach). Gordon practiced yesterday, but general manager George McPhee said he is at least seven to 10 days from returning. Price, a 20-year-old rookie who beat Hershey in the Calder Cup Finals last season with Hamilton, has started seven straight games — though Huet was pronounced healthy and has been his backup for the past two.

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