- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 25, 2012

If you’re looking for the face of the Washington Capitals these days, check out Matt Hendricks‘ mug. After doing battle with the Boston Bruins on Tuesday night, Hendricks pointed to a bright red welt on his left cheek and said, “That’s [the work of] a stick.” Then he pointed to his right ear, equally rosy — and possibly in need of stitches — and said, “That’s a puck.”

By “face of the Washington Capitals,” by the way, I’m not talking about the one you’d put on a billboard. I’m talking about the face that most closely reflects the kind of season it has been for the team. And the pummeled puss of Hendricks, fourth-line winger and part-time pugilist, is certainly that. Forty-eight games in, the Caps continue to take their lumps — too many, it could be argued, of the self-inflicted kind — and if they weren’t playing in the NHL’s weakest division they’d be in real trouble.

Think of Hendricks‘ welt as the long-term loss of Mike Green, who has appeared in only 10 games because of a maddening succession of injuries. And think of Matt’s tenderized ear as Nicklas Backstrom’s lingering concussion issues, which have kept Backie out of the lineup since Jan. 3. Of course, that still leaves the coaching change (Bruce Boudreau out, Dale Hunter in), Alex Ovechkin’s suspension for pulverizing a Pittsburgh Penguin, and assorted other cuts and scrapes, but you get the idea. The Capitals have been knocked around more than Wladimir Klitschko’s sparring partner.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After being swept out of the playoffs last year by Tampa Bay — and doing the requisite roster shuffling over the summer — the Caps were supposed to be doing the knocking this season. But stuff happened, as stuff tends to do, and they find themselves with the sixth-best record in the Eastern Conference (26-19-3, 55 points).

The switch from Uncle Brucie to Taskmaster Dale, moreover, hasn’t produced a dramatic change in their performance, not like the switch from Glen Hanlon to Boudreau in 2007. Just when it looked as if the Capitals were getting straightened out, winning seven of nine after Christmas, they were shut out twice in three games by the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes, the dregs of the East. It was enough, no doubt, to make Hunter wonder why he ever left the family farm.

So when the Bruins skated out onto the ice Tuesday night at Verizon Center, there was a sense of imminent doom. The B’s, after all, won the Stanley Cup last season and are looking like they might do it again. The Caps, meanwhile, were missing their top playmaker (Backstrom), top goal-scorer (Ovechkin, who watched the proceedings from a luxury box on high) and most dangerous defenseman (Green).

When Boston scored first, on an own-goal courtesy of the Capitals‘ Karl Alzner, the situation looked particularly dire. But the Caps kept pushing, outhitting the physical Bruins nearly 2-to-1, and worked their way back into the game. Who could have imagined that on this night, of all nights, Mathieu Perreault, their subcompact center, would register the first hat trick of his NHL career and lift the club to a stunning 5-3 win? I mean, it just didn’t fit the storyline of the season.

But maybe there’s still time for that storyline to change. Perhaps that was the message in this game — that much hockey remains to be played, more than two months’ worth, and the Capitals aren’t quite resigned to, well, whatever a 26-19-3 team is resigned to. Naturally, they need to get Backstrom and Green back, and it would be nice if Ovechkin (on pace for 34 goals) regained his scoring touch, but if they can keep playing with the resolve they displayed against the defending Stanley Cup champs …

“Guys were really fired up,” Alzner said. “It was the first time we’ve gotten to play the Bruins this season. I thought the majority of the game our battle level, our physicality, was really good. You’re not going to win in this league with one line or two lines or five guys [playing hard]. Look at Boston. They’re all good on that team. Every line is good, and every line gives you the same thing. If you can play like that, you’re going to have a chance to win.”

Playing against the best clubs, in other words, reminds you of what it takes to be one of the best clubs. (The Capitals, alas, always seem to need reminders like that.) And having to play those clubs without your big guns, as Hendricks said, forces you to “play tighter to the game plan. You don’t deviate as much from the X’s and O’s the coaches put on the board.” The Caps could stand to do a little more of that, too. Freewheeling might look good on “SportsCenter,” but it’s no way to win the Cup.

It was only one game, 60 minutes in late January, but it sent the Capitals and their fans into the All-Star break humming a more upbeat tune. When play resumes next week, though, the Caps need to show us more of the same. A lot more.

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