- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 8, 2009

A year ago, it was all about winning the division for the Capitals. That was accomplishment enough given their horrid start and the coaching change in November. This year, though, they want to be more than just the biggest bully on the Southeast block. And to achieve that, they have to beat the other bullies in the Eastern Conference. This is how you secure a first or second playoff seed and position yourself for a Stanley Cup run.

In a sense, the Caps are in a division now with the Bruins, Flyers, Rangers, Canadiens and Devils - the teams that, halfway through the season, have the best shots at those top seeds. And you’ll be pleased to know they’re doing fabulously well against such competition. Tuesday’s 2-1 shootout win over Philadelphia gave the Caps an 8-1-2 record against those clubs, the best in the group.

This might be the most significant indicator of the Caps’ progress from last year to this. They’re not just feasting on the Panthers, Lightning and Thrashers. They’re knocking around the big boys, too.

One of the reasons it behooves them to earn the home-ice advantage for the postseason is that they’ve been practically unbeatable at Verizon Center. They’re 18-1-1 - 37 of a possible 40 points, folks - prompting Bruce Boudreau to say, “I’ve been in this business 33 years, and I have never been on a team that has played 20 games and lost only once [in regulation] on home ice.”

Fans are flocking to Uncle Ted’s Pond, wearing their red and raising a ruckus. It’s become a hard place for an opposing club to play - though Philly did about as well as anybody by pushing the Caps to overtime and beyond.

“The crowd’s huge,” said Nicklas Backstrom, whose goal in the first three minutes gave the home team a 1-0 lead. “It feels like an extra player.”

Loud as they were, though, the customers couldn’t inspire the Capitals to score again - not, at least, until Viktor Kozlov flipped the puck past Marty Biron to win the shootout. But that says something, too, about the Caps and their maturation. How many times in the regular season have they gone almost 63 minutes without a goal and still come away with a “W”? They might be thought of as an offensive team - what with The Two Alexanders, Ovechkin and Semin, and Mike Green pumping in goals - but they’re also winning with defense and goaltending.

Offseason pickup Jose Theodore was a stone wall in the shootout, stopping all three Flyers attempts. He’s been a different netminder since coming off the injured list Dec. 19, allowing just 11 goals in his last six games, all victories. Of course, he’s also been a different netminder since 20-year-old Simeon Varlamov was called up from Hershey in his absence and backstopped the Caps to wins against the Canadiens and Blues. A little creative tension never hurts.

Varlamov returned to the minors, but his time will come - just as it did for another 20-year-old, Karl Alzner, whose addition in late November helped firm up the blue line. Then there’s 18-year-old Stefan Della Rovere, the Caps’ seventh-round pick this year, who earned a spot on Canada’s world championship junior team. Currently skating for the Barrie Colts in the Ontario Hockey League, he sounds like a Dale Hunter-in-training - a rabble-rouser who can score.

During the Canadians’ win over the U.S. team, Della Rovere “was so far under the skin of the Americans,” the Toronto Globe and Mail reported, that “at one point they were taunting him from the bench: ‘You’re dead! You’re dead! You’re dead!’”

The Winnipeg Sun, meanwhile, describes him as “capable of controlled chaos.”

Yup, sounds like another Hunts, all right.

That’s what you have to remember about the Caps: This is just the beginning for them. They’re still developing players, still evolving into what they hope will be a perennially contending franchise. Heck, there’s so much talent in the organization that even the Web site producer, Brett Leonhardt, has college goaltending experience - and, in a pinch, filled in as the emergency backup. (Not to worry, though. There are no plans to use the Zamboni driver in the next shootout.)

The Caps spent the second half of last season in an all-out sprint, trying to make up lost ground. They’re in the exact opposite position now, with a 10-point lead over the Hurricanes in the Southeast.

“It’s different,” Boudreau said. “But it’s one thing to get [to the top] and another thing to stay there. We like it up there - and I think the guys want to be one of the best teams in the league. We’re going to push the envelope as far as we can and see where it takes us. And hopefully it can take us far.”