- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2009

One year ago, the Washington Capitals completed a home-and-home sweep of the Ottawa Senators on New Year’s Day. At the time, it was deemed a considerable upset.

The Caps were just finding their way with a new coach, still on the fringes of relevance thanks to a 6-14-1 start to the season. Meanwhile, the team from the other capital city was the best in the National Hockey League’s Eastern Conference and six months removed from an appearance in the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals.

One year later, those two games make more sense. In a 12-month span, the Caps have surged from obscurity to prominence. Buoyed by an exciting brand of play and the sport’s most electrifying player, 2008 will be remembered as the year when this generation of Washington Capitals went from afterthought to burgeoning hockey superpower.

“It is pretty crazy how far we’ve come,” forward Boyd Gordon said. “We’ve brought in a lot of good people, guys have developed and we have the best player in the world. You put all that together and add the good coaching, and that is the basis of the turnaround.”

The raw numbers are staggering. Starting with that 6-3 victory against Ottawa and ending with a 4-2 triumph Tuesday night in Buffalo, the Caps won 52 games in 2008. Toss in six losses in either overtime or a shootout, and Washington earned 110 points, which trailed only the San Jose Sharks and the Boston Bruins among the league’s 30 teams.

To put it in better context, in the previous 33 seasons, no Caps team collected more than 107 points, and only one, the 1985-86 club, reached the 50-win plateau.

Few could have predicted that remarkable turnaround on Thanksgiving Day in 2007, when the Caps, which had won just six of its first 21 games, fired coach Glen Hanlon and replaced him with the man at the helm of their American Hockey League affiliate, Bruce Boudreau. Boudreau had a history of winning — his Hershey Bears captured the league title in 2006.

The day after the Caps hired him, they won in Philadelphia and continued that pattern often into 2008.

“I think we expected to be here. I think we knew we had potential,” Caps forward Brooks Laich said. “We’ve talked about it the past couple seasons — how there was a lot of potential in here, and one day we were going to be a very good hockey team. The thing is we’ve started to realize our potential, but we’re still not satisfied. We’ll keep pushing and see how high we can go.”

Everything starts with megastar Alex Ovechkin, who capped 2007 with a four-goal game against Ottawa and didn’t slow down in 2008. He scored 60 goals in the calendar year — 10 more than any other player in the league.

The year began with a bang for Ovechkin when he put his signature on a 13-year, $124 million contract, giving him the highest average annual salary in the NHL. He proceeded to help carry the Caps to a Southeast Division championship on the final day of the 2007-08 season and then collected four major trophies - two MVP awards, one for netting a league-best 65 goals and one for racking up the most points with 112.

During his offseason, Ovechkin helped Russia win the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship, which was staged in his hometown of Moscow. He also launched his own clothing line, was given a key to the District by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and starred in a music video.

What has helped spur the Caps’ revival is the development of Ovechkin’s supporting cast. The franchise boasts a group of sublimely talented, young players for general manager George McPhee to try to build a winning club.

The whole process has happened faster than many hockey pundits had predicted. This team is constructed with players who have been part of the organization since June 2002, starting with the selections of Alexander Semin and Gordon in the amateur draft that summer.

More savvy drafting and a series of deft trades near the end of the 2004 season (now remembered affectionately as “the pre-lockout fire sale”) helped McPhee stock the rosters in both Washington and Hershey.

A long-term plan that required plenty of patience through three trying seasons and a yearlong work stoppage finally has come to fruition. The Caps made the playoffs last season and hockey games in Chinatown became an event.

“It was just as fun for me to see the change in the Washington hockey scene and to see what it was from the beginning of the year to the end of the year,” Caps captain Chris Clark said. “We’re selling out, everyone is wearing red and it is just nuts around the Verizon Center. That is something I’ll remember.”

Not only do teams from visiting cities now have to contend with more than 18,000 red-clad fans on a consistent basis — the Caps have sold out 14 of their last 27 home games and have experienced the second-highest attendance boost from last season behind only the Chicago Blackhawks — but the opponent on the ice has been a prodigious one as well.

The Caps went 31-6-3 at Verizon Center during the regular season in 2008, including a 21-1-1 stretch to finish the year.

“It makes teams fear coming into Washington,” Laich said. “We want to be a tough team to play on home ice. Teams look at the schedule and say, ‘Oh, we have to play at Washington on Thursday.’ Then they come into town on Wednesday and it is, ‘Oh, let’s just get through this game.’ They know we’re going to be flying. … I think it intimidates some teams.”

While 2008 was grand for the Caps, 2009 and beyond could be even better. In the immediate future, the team is likely to begin having more of its players in good health (because of injuries, the Caps have used more players than any other team in the league) and the schedule sets up very nicely.

Between Thursday and the end of February, the Caps will play 15 of their next 25 games at Verizon. Then Washington closes the season with 17 of its last 19 contests against teams that did not make the playoffs a year ago.

Translation: A strong finish to the season should be expected, as should the status befitting a legitimate contender to win hockey’s ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup.

“We started to believe we could win, and that was the biggest thing,” Gordon said. “We started beating teams and going into games expecting to win, and that’s been the biggest difference.”

Added Laich: “It’s different now. We know we’re not going to sneak up on teams and take them by surprise. If you look back to last year, maybe that was the case. Maybe some nights we were able to surprise a team and they came away saying, ‘Maybe that is a pretty good hockey team.’ Now other teams are starting to look at us as an elite team.”

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