- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

The new-and-improved Washington Capitals — twice as many Czech goalies! — travel to the western provinces this week to continue their quest for the NHL’s first perfect season. OK, so they’re not going to go 82-0. Even 81-0-1 is stretch. But center Brooks Laich said before they left for Edmonton that “We want to extend this as far as we can,” and Laich is a man who must be taken at his word.

Still, if seven wins in seven games aren’t cause for celebration in Capitals Nation, then they’re at least worthy of a long sigh of relief. This is the team, after all, that ended last season with four losses in four games — against Tampa Bay in the second round of the playoffs.

Even after general manager George McPhee did a fair amount of housecleaning, adding some useful veterans and getting rid of some less useful ones, there was concern about the possibility of a Hangover Effect. Did getting swept by the Lightning shake their confidence? Were they still feeling sorry for themselves? And what about their offensive mojo, particularly on the power play? Was last season just an aberration, or had the Caps evolved into a lower-scoring, less-exciting version of themselves?


We now know the answer to most if not all of these questions. For starters, the Capitals have wisely chosen to leave the past in the past and focus on the only thing they have any control over: the next game. (Indeed, their 7-0 start is the best in franchise history.) As for left wing Alex Ovechkin, center Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman Mike Green, they’ve all begun to stir in the last week or so, giving hope that they can return to their previous offensive levels - or at least somewhere in the general vicinity.

At any rate, the chatter around the club is all good. All the doubts that surfaced during the Tampa Bay series have been temporarily tabled, enabling the players to focus on hockey — and on this year rather than last. Granted, Washington has seen quite a few No. 2 goaltenders so far, not to mention teams playing the second game of a back-to-back. But a 7-1 wipeout of the Detroit Red Wings is a 7-1 wipeout of the Detroit Red Wings, regardless of how you spin it.

This first trip to moose country, with the Oilers (Thursday) and Vancouver Canucks (Saturday) lying in wait, will be another measuring stick for the Capitals. It’s always tough to win out west, of course, and the Canucks were Stanley Cup finalists last season. But beyond that, will the Caps take their foot off the gas - as they’ve been known to do?

Laich insists they won’t, that self-satisfaction isn’t part of the club’s makeup. After the Capitals upped their record to 6-0, he said, “I was thinking that a lot of teams would be pretty excited to do that. But we just went to Philly, beat ‘em [by a healthy 5-2 margin] and went home. There was no popping of champagne. It was just back to work the next day.”

Stylistically, too, this isn’t the same Caps team — as the Oilers and Canucks are about to find out. Left wing Jason Chimera put it this way: “I think we’re built better for Western Conference hockey. We’ve gotten grittier with some of the players we’ve added [e.g. forwards Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern], and I think we’re doing a good job of not playing so fancy this year. We’re doing a better job of simplifying our game. Western Conference hockey is a lot of dump-and-chase, banging it out on the boards and one-on-one play on the boards. I think we’re better at that now.”

The early returns would seem to indicate that. In addition to getting their offense revved up, the Capitals - with Tomas Vokoun minding to the nets - have allowed just six goals in their past five games. You don’t do that with prettiness. You do it with perspiration.

The whole feel of the club is different. With scoring coming from so many places - 13 players already have goals, and Chimera and center Marcus Johansson are the early leaders with four - the Caps just seem less star-driven now … and maybe more of a team. Nobody’s expecting Chimera to pull a Jose Bautista and suddenly become a big star late in his career, but there might not be as much dependency on Ovechkin and some of the others as there used to be.

“I never really thought of that, but yeah,” right wing Mike Knuble said. “It can be kind of like the Haves and the Have Nots, and you have two factions going [in the locker room].”

Look at the Boston Bruins. They won the Stanley Cup last season, yet they had just one player with 30 goals (Milan Lucic). In the finals, they took down the more glamorous Canucks, who had two 40-goal guys (Daniel Sedin and Ryan Kesler) and the league’s most explosive offense.

Razzle-dazzle is swell - unless, that is, it turns to frazzle and fizzle, as has been the case with the Capitals. Can they be content, for 82 games and beyond, with “not playing so fancy,” or is it too much a part of their DNA? It’s a question that will always hang over them — until a Stanley Cup banner does.