- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Penguins paraded the Stanley Cup around Pittsburgh on Monday - the Cup that might have… could have… oh, let’s not even go there. Besides, Pens 6, Capitals 2 in Game 7 kinda takes the coulda/shoulda out of it.

But it’s hardly a hallucination to think a scene like that, replete with red confetti and free borscht for everybody, could take place on the streets of Washington sometime soon. Especially when you consider that while the Penguins were breaking the Red Wings’ hearts on Friday night, the Caps’ top farm club, the Hershey Bears, was mauling the Manitoba Moose to capture the second-best cup available, the Calder.

Ted Leonsis says he was watching the two games simultaneously, the first on TV and the second on a laptop. The Pens’ vanquishing of Detroit merely confirmed what he’d said after they were done vanquishing his team: Pittsburgh will win it all. “I didn’t feel anything special,” he insisted in an e-mail Monday, “- just that youth can and must be served, and that if they can win the Cup, we can too.”

The Bears’ win offered the Capitals owner some consolation, though. Those were the Caps of the Not-Too-Distant Future who rolled through the AHL playoffs, knocking aside - among others - the Penguins’ No. 1 affiliate, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. And make no mistake, Ted said, “We are very focused and committed on improving the team - inculcating more of our prospects into our team. We have a winners’ culture now. Adding to the team via trade will be key too.”

Inculc-… what was that word again? And is it anything like “matriculating the ball down the field” in football? (See: Hank Stram, Super Bowl IV.)

Anyway, this is one of the reasons the Capitals have turned it around so quickly - because the man calling the shots has a much larger vocabulary than the average NHL owner. Any club can “work in” younger players - or even “integrate” them - but not many can inculcate them. Trust me, it makes all the difference.

While Leonsis won’t be satisfied until the Capitals are carting around the Cup themselves, he and GM George McPhee at least have a better idea now of exactly where their team stands. A year ago, when the Caps got waylaid in the first round by the Flyers, it wasn’t quite so clear. Philadelphia, after all, didn’t reach the finals.

But Pittsburgh did. And as we saw in the playoffs, the gap between the Penguins and Caps isn’t exactly yawning. You could certainly make the argument that the Caps played the Pens as tough as the Red Wings did. For one thing, the Wings never won at the Igloo - never came that close, really. The Caps stole a game there and lost another in overtime on a shot that went in off a defenseman’s stick.

(Sorry to resurrect that awful memory. I’ll try not to do it again.)

If I were Bruce Boudreau, I’d gather my players - particularly the defensemen - in the film room, lock the door and make them watch, over and over, what Detroit did to hold Sidney Crosby to just one goal and two assists (and zilch in the four games at Joe Louis Arena). I might even go the “Clockwork Orange” route and hook them up to those gizmos that prop their eyelids open, just to make sure they don’t doze off.

Don’t get me wrong, Sid the Kid is a terrific talent, but there’s no way he should be scoring eight goals against the Capitals in a seven-game series - by merely, in most instances, planting himself just to the right of the crease. I mean, the guy scored six goals in the entire playoffs last year. He’s not Brett Hull.

It would also be nice if the Caps learned something else from their postseason experience - namely, the advisability of not diddling around with opponents who are inferior to them. The Penguins didn’t have the home-ice advantage in two of their last three series, but they were the better-rested team going into every Game 1 and had a total of 13 days off between rounds. You can’t tell me that wasn’t a factor in their success.

The Caps, on the other hand, allowed themselves to be pushed to the limit by the seventh-seeded Rangers. This just meant more time on the postgame exercise bike for 39-year-old Sergei Fedorov, who by the end was starting to look like Lance Armstrong ascending the French Alps.

This much you know about the Capitals next season: It’s going to be wonderfully crowded in training camp. Any number of the Cub Caps - goalie Michal Neuvirth, defensemen Karl Alzner and John Carlson, forwards Oskar Osala, Chris Bourque, Anton Gustafsson and Stefan Della Rovere - might be ready to join Alex Ovechkin and Co. on the Big Team. And Simeon Varlamov, of course, has already made a place for himself with his stellar goaltending in the playoffs.

The Cup belongs to the Penguins… for now - just as the Red Wings had temporary possession of it before them. The Capitals simply have to out-inculcate them, that’s all. Everything else will take care of itself.

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