- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Looking back, Jeff Halpern says, “Everything had to go right for us to make the playoffs” this season. And really now, how realistic an expectation was that for the Capitals, what with their $25.5 million payroll and 25.6 million question marks entering training camp?

When they took the ice for their home finale last night against Atlanta, the Caps were much closer to the first pick in the draft than the first round of the playoffs. But then, you figured that might be the case after the front office made it clear the year would be devoted to foundation laying. You just hoped the club, en route to its 40- or 50-odd losses, wouldn’t become a David Letterman punch line, wouldn’t become the expansion Caps of ‘74-75.

It didn’t, of course. In fact, the Capitals kind of grew on you over time. The talent might have been a little thin, but the exuberance, the sheer effort, was hard to miss — never more so than in the back-to-back-to-back games against conference-leading Carolina earlier this month. Three one-goal losses, two in overtime. How can you not appreciate a team that’s still grinding that hard that late in the season … with the playoffs not even remotely in the picture?

The Capitals’ biggest victory in ‘05-06 doesn’t even show up in the standings. As Glen Hanlon put it, “We got back to Caps hockey, to how they played when Bryan Murray and Ron Wilson were [coaching] here. You play the Caps, they’re going to come at you hard. Thank God, it only took us about 10 games to reestablish that.”

That was the stretch that saw the Capitals get blown out 8-1 (twice), 7-2 and 7-3 — and look like they might become the expansion Caps. But Alex Ovechkin, the precocious 20-year-old, kept pumping in goals, summer pickups Chris Clark and Matt Bradley turned into “impact players in terms of the locker room,” according to Hanlon, and the club hung tough despite all the discouraging defeats.

Along the way, they found out something about themselves. “Five on five,” Dainius Zubrus said, “we’re a pretty good team. Obviously, our special teams — power play and penalty kills — cost us some games.”

Indeed. The Capitals were in the bottom four in the league in both categories going into last night. But Ted Leonsis and George McPhee have a plan, and they’re sticking to it. That’s why, despite the club’s deficiencies in the penalty-killing department, they traded their best defenseman, Brendan Witt, at the deadline for a first-round draft choice. Once again, the Caps have stockpiled picks — two in Round 1, three in Round 2 — in an attempt to Rebuild At A Reasonable Price.

The plan sounds good in theory, given the realities of the Washington hockey market. We’ll have to see whether it actually works, though. At this point, as they say on election night, it’s too close to call.

But in the meantime, there’s Ovechkin, a once-a-decade if not once-a-generation player. Alexander has almost single-handedly made the Capitals watchable — no small feat in a 28-41-12 season. Opponents can put a checking forward, a 6-5 defenseman and a Zamboni on him, and he’ll still find a way to score.

Last night was a classic example. The kid hadn’t exactly distinguished himself in the first two periods, being on the ice for two of the Thrashers’ four goals. But early in the third, after Ben Clymer fired a no-chance shot from the sideboards, Ovechkin was perfectly positioned to play the carom and whip the puck past Michael Garnett. Washington 4, Atlanta 4.

How did Alex know where to be? Telepathy, I suppose. All the great ones have it.

Two more Capitals goals soon followed, one by Brian Willsie and the other by Matt Pettinger, his second of the evening and 20th of the season. Such is the ripple effect of a scorer like Ovechkin. (Not that there are many scorers like Ovechkin.) Nothing, after all, energizes a hockey club like a flashing red light.

In turning loss No. 42 into win No. 28, the Caps showed both their faults (mostly defensive) and their strengths (Ovechkin and heart). By the end, the Verizon Center faithful were on their feet yelling — blowing their horns, clapping their hands and, being fans, pleading for one more empty-net goal.

All in all, it was a perfect ending to the home season. That, or a perfect start to next season. Take your pick.

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