- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2009

This hasn’t been the best time of year for Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee in recent seasons.

The NHL All-Star break usually did little more for the Capitals than prolong the agony of a dismal season.

In the 2003-04 campaign, the Capitals were 17-31-5-2 at the All-Star break for just 41 points. They weren’t much better the next season with a 19-32-5 record for 43 points at the break for the 2006 Winter Olympics.

This year, though, the break is a good time - no, a great time - for George McPhee. His team is one of the hottest in the league with a 30-15-3 mark and 63 points.

“I’m very happy with the first half,” McPhee said.

And the best may be yet to come based on the help that has come from Hershey.

“I’ve been surprised by the high performance level despite the volume of injuries and the play of the young call-ups,” he said. “The organization is deep.”

The way the team has not just survived but excelled in the face of significant injuries bodes well as the Caps get healthier heading into the second half.

The Capitals last season felt the need to add goalie Cristobal Huet and Sergei Fedorov at the trade deadline, but the impact this time around may come from simply getting the roster to full strength or close to it.

“We’re comfortable with the makeup of the team,” McPhee said. “We’d like to see what this team can be when healthy. It is hard to predict what may happen at the trade deadline. It is too early.”

You don’t need to be Barry Melrose to figure out how the Capitals made McPhee a happy man. They have the best player in the league - any arguments otherwise seem sillier and sillier with each game - in Alex Ovechkin, who led the league in goals and ranked third in points entering Wednesday and is on his way to collecting more trophies.

Ovechkin’s young supporting cast of Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and now Tomas Fleischmann has continued to grow and excel. The play of goalie Jose Theodore, 9-3 since Dec. 23, is making McPhee look like a genius for signing him after Huet accepted an offer from Chicago.

But here’s the most amazing part of this team: coach Bruce Boudreau.

It’s time to stop looking at Boudreau as the “Slap Shot” guy, the career minor leaguer with the everyman, self-deprecating style.

It’s time to start looking at him as a great NHL coach who, after years of toiling in obscure minor league towns, could be building a legacy for himself.

Boudreau took over the Caps last season at Thanksgiving and produced a major turnaround, leading the team to a 37-17-7 record and a playoff spot - a great story. His handling of the club this season - dealing with the injuries and his young stars, pushing his team forward - indicate we are watching more than just a great story.

I don’t want to get too crazy here, but Scotty Bowman produced a record of 49-35-25 in his first 109 games with St. Louis.

Boudreau’s NHL career record after 109 games: 67-32-10.

Like his team, Boudreau has a ways to go before he establishes greatness. For a coach, that comes with Stanley Cups.

But you have to consider the possibility Boudreau has greatness in him.

“Bruce is a great coach,” McPhee said, feeling pretty good about his coach and his team at the All-Star break. “He could be very successful in this league for many years. He is as good as any coach in this league.”

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