One of the best things you can say about the Bruce Boudreau Capitals is that they rarely let a bad performance fester. Back-to-back regulation losses are about as frequent for them as Shaone Morrisonn goals (though more common than a Brett Leonhardt “DNP”). That might be as strong an indicator as any of the club’s coming of age. It’s harder these days to knock the Caps off course, to undermine their self-confidence.
Friday night at Verizon Center, they were all but comatose in a 4-1 crunching by Colorado. “All 20 guys stunk” was how Boudreau described it. So the coach worked his players into a breathless state the next morning just to remind them of all that’s at stake for them now. It’s not enough for them just to make the playoffs anymore; they’re too good for that. The door to the No. 2 seed is open in the Eastern Conference, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t charge through it.
As luck would have it, the Capitals’ next opponent was the Penguins, who expended much energy Saturday afternoon in beating the Flyers in Philadelphia. That, coupled with a strong desire to avoid another skating session with Drillmaster Bruce, was more than enough to get the Caps rolling again Sunday at Ted Leonsis’ pond.
Less than six minutes into the game, Alex Ovechkin blasted a power-play goal past Marc-Andre Fleury. Midway through the first period, The Other Alex, Semin, also scored with the man advantage to give the home team the lead for good at 2-1. When it was over, the Capitals had a 5-2 win, sole possession of second place in the conference and six more games on their own ice to look forward to (wrapped around a brief trip to Boston).
“We knew the Flyers game took a lot out of them,” tough guy Donald Brashear said. “We figured that would work in our favor as long as we came out and played with energy.”
But other things also worked in the Caps’ favor: No. 1 being that they’re just better than Pittsburgh now (as their 3-0 record this season vs. the Pens, two of the victories coming on the road, suggests). The vaunted Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin-Sergei Gonchar power play, for instance - back in action now that Gonchar has returned from the injured list - scored just once Sunday, and that was after overlapping penalties against Washington gave the visitors an extra man for nearly four minutes.
A year after the Penguins went to the Stanley Cup Finals, their season is slipping away. They’re in 10th place in the East, changed coaches only a week ago and are giving up way too many goals to be considered a serious contender - four to the Canadiens, four to the Flyers and five to the Capitals in the space of four days.
Crosby, meanwhile, is clearly frustrated - as evidenced by all the yapping he’s doing on the ice. At one point Sunday he even exchanged shoves with his fellow demigod, Ovechkin, though nothing came of it.
“He wasn’t getting the freedom he’s had in this building before,” Boudreau said of No. 87’s fulminations. “… And every time Alex gets a little more excitable, it can be good for us because it gets his adrenaline going.”
Another guy whose adrenaline was going was Sergei Fedorov, who’s beginning to come around after missing a chunk of the season with a bum ankle. Fedorov assisted on the first Washington goal and scored the third himself on a rocket shot off a break that Fleury is still looking for. Sergei might be 39, but he still has his moments, and the Caps are hoping he has a few more of them from here on out. Indeed, there might be a benefit to his missing 26 games; he should have fresher legs for the stretch run and the playoffs.
His presence in the locker room, of course - his influence on the younger players and all the rest - is another plus. It’s always good to have somebody like Fedorov around after a night like Friday, a night when the Capitals seem to be skating in slush. He can help get everyone’s minds right, make sure his teammates are looking forward instead of dwelling on the unchangeable past.
The Penguins, as he put it, might be playing with a sense of desperation, scrambling as they are to reach the postseason, but “we have our own goals, too.” And Sunday they took another step toward them with an impressive, national-television display against a talented but out-of-sorts Pittsburgh club.
The Pens will be back in two weeks for another go at the locals, but you don’t get the feeling much will change. When suitably inspired, as they were Sunday, the Caps have just too much… well, everything for most teams.