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Capsized

While watching their Capitals sleepwalk through an embarrassing 5-1 loss to the Thrashers on Wednesday night, the hometown fans gave voice to their frustration and filled the building with the chant "Fire Hanlon!"

On Thursday morning, they got their wish. The Capitals turfed Glen Hanlon after three losing seasons and replaced him on an interim basis with minor league coach Bruce Boudreau.

Hanlon's record in Washington was 78-123-9-29 -- not a bad mark considering the talent he had to work with through much of his tenure. In fact, he earned admiration around the league for instilling a work ethic that made the Caps a difficult opponent as they built toward respectability.

But hard work only goes so far, and this was a season where more was expected. While the players were said to have liked Hanlon, it was apparent that the losing was diminishing his impact in the room. So with the offense going sour and the effort going south, GM George McPhee was out of options.

Caps fans may be in a thankful mood, but they should also recognize the hard truth: There's little chance that the erstwhile coach of the AHL Hershey Bears can turn this ship around, the preseason promise of playoffs by owner TedLeonsis notwithstanding.

With three-quarters of the season to go, the Caps are already reduced to playing out the string. After just 21 games, the math points towards their fourth lottery pick in five years. It took 92 points for the Islanders to secure the hotly contested final playoff berth in the East last season. With just 13 points through 21 games, the Caps would need to win something in the neighborhood of 40 of their final 61 matches to hit that mark.

Looking at what this group has accomplished so far, there's little reason to secure any dates at the Verizon Center this spring. The NHL's worst team at the quarter pole, the Caps have won just three of their last 18 after a promising start that saw them rattle off three straight wins. Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it, Caps fans?

At that point, it looked as though McPhee's summer additions, including centers Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov along with defenseman Tom Poti, might just pay off. It didn't take long for the bubble to burst.

Injuries to Alexander Semin and Chris Clark were a factor, but not an excuse. Hanlon still had more talent to work with than he did for much of last season, but his bag of tricks was empty. He struggled to find line combinations that clicked. His Caps frequently fell out of sync, with too many freelancers and a propensity for turnovers that put too much pressure on an inexperienced defense. The power play was firing blanks.

As a team, the Caps were less aggressive than the late, great Mr. Whipple. It was a systemic problem in plain evidence during Wednesday's last-straw loss to the Thrashers.

So change was inevitable, and not just to stop the bleeding. Because as much as this move was about providing some sort of spark for the team and giving hope to a disenchanted fan base, it is also meant to send a message to Alexander Ovechkin that the franchise has its head on straight. The superstar winger becomes a restricted free agent after this season, and the Caps will have to show him they're just as serious about winning as they are about showering him with cash if they want him to spurn the advances of what could be a long line of suitors.

That puts a lot of pressure on Boudreau to show progress, if not work a miracle with a lineup that looks frighteningly thin and awkwardly constructed despite being three seasons into McPhee's rebuilding effort. Boudreau will certainly bring a more demanding style to the rink than the one employed by Hanlon, who is a more reserved individual.

The boys will always know their coach is there now, but it'll take more than emotional leadership to sort through this mess. Figuring out what to do with Nicklas Backstrom will be a priority. Noted as the most NHL-ready player when he was drafted fourth overall in 2006, Backstrom still doesn't look ready for prime time. Semin continues to struggle with an ankle injury, a situation that severely limits Boudreau's offensive options. And Boudreau has to prepare for the inevitable meltdowns that come with a blueline that relies so heavily on Poti, Brian Pothier, Milan Jurcina and Jeff Schultz.

So you got your wish, Caps fans. Since your last chant worked so well, you might want to start one for that miracle now.

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