You know when you have one of those “whew’” moments? Like, “thank God I didn’t say that” or, in my case, “thank God I didn’t write that.”
I had one of those this week when I looked up and saw Washington four points ahead of Tampa in the Southeast and just a couple points in arrears of Philly for the conference lead.
You see, a few weeks back I was spit-balling ideas for this space with THN’s managing editor Edward Fraser and we landed on the fact we both feared “Washington had swung too far the other way” by handcuffing their offensive wizards in favor of a defensive bent.
That was when the Caps were second in their division and wallowing around sixth in the East. Alex Ovechkin was disappointing fantasy owners around the world with his play and, by the looks of his bio photo, was similarly stunned with his lack of production.
The same team that had won 54 games and scored 46 goals more than any other en route to the Presidents’ Trophy last season had scored 25 goals its past 10 games (including 12 total in two of them) and had settled into a win-a-few, lose-a-few pattern.
Then they got spanked 6-0 at home by the Rangers on Feb. 25 and it seemed an implosion was imminent.
Here’s what I was thinking: Everyone knew the Caps needed to play a brand of hockey more conducive to winning in the post-season, but they’d gone overboard. The style coach Bruce Boudreau had installed was reining in Ovie and Co. too much.
As Versus analyst and former NHLer Ed Olczyk told me in the summer when we were discussing the upcoming season: “When you have world-class thoroughbreds, it’s hard not to allow them to play and showcase their abilities.”
And it seemed as if the thoroughbreds agreed. The Caps were no longer the enthusiastic, go-go team they’d been.
They looked miserable - as in having-no-fun miserable.
But then, seemingly out of nowhere, the Caps ran off nine straight wins, overtook Tampa and were threatening a Flyers squad that looked to be home and cooled out at the top of the East - and all that with a third of their defense on the IR and a rookie goaltender carrying much of the load.
Of those nine wins, just two were by more than a goal and just once did Washington allow as many as three goals. Washington now gets it. These are not the Caps you knew and loved the past few seasons. They're better.
They no longer blow third period leads by trying to tack on more scores when you only need to win by one, but still know how to keep their collective foot on opponents’ throats – they outscored teams 13-2 in the third period during the nine-game streak.
And Ovie is back at it with four goals in his past six games and 15 points in his past 11 contests; fifth in league scoring and climbing. He’s not going to win any awards this year (unless it’s the Conn Smythe), but, as he's said repeatedly, it's only the Cup he cares about.
Ovechkin has borne a lot of criticism recently. Russia sucked at the Olympics and he was lambasted for going out of his way to push someone videotaping him after losing the fifth-place game to Switzerland. Then the Caps sucked in last year’s playoffs and he was chastised for being one dimensional and predictable. Then there was his stretch of three goals in 20 games in November and December that had the naysayers nattering.
But Ovechkin’s rock star attitude has been replaced with that of a workman and his teammates have followed suit. They’ve turned a corner and after a tough middle of the season are looking like favorites to come out of the East. Ovie and the Caps have finally figured out what Boudreau is selling and they’re better for it.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.