Alex Ovechkin strolled into the Washington Capitals' practice facility to report for training camp Friday, wearing a tight-fitting tank top, faded camouflage shorts and flip-flops.
A little while later, the NHL's reigning MVP swapped that outfit for team-issued red mesh shorts and a bright, white T-shirt reading, "The Future is Now" in red on the front and "Good is Not Good Enough" on the back.
Oh, how quickly the outlook around these parts changed. That's what a league scoring champion, a late-season surge, a surprising playoff appearance and a coach of the year award for in-season hire Bruce Boudreau will do for a hockey team.
"When Bruce first came in last year, his message to the players was, 'Working hard and trying hard isn't good enough anymore. We've got to start winning,"' general manager George McPhee said. "We're now at a point where we think we have a good club and we don't want to set any limitations on what we might be able to do. It's not about just making the playoffs. We want to go a long way, as far as we can go. We'd like to win a Cup."
Heady talk, given where the Capitals were recently: They finished 27th in the 30-team league in both 2005-06 and 2006-07.
Which is why, forward Brooks Laich explained, "Last year, we came to camp sort of hoping to make the playoffs. We weren't sure yet where we were at. But this year it's a different feeling around here. After what we did last year, we're expecting to make the playoffs -- and not just get in, but expecting to do something when we get there."
Even the modest goal of contending for a postseason berth seemed out of the question in late November, when the Capitals were an NHL-worst 6-14-1, prompting McPhee to fire coach Glen Hanlon and promote Boudreau from the minors.
Boudreau's attacking style and "believe you can win" mantra sparked Washington, which went 37-17-7 the rest of the way. Among the main contributors were youngsters Ovechkin (65 goals, an NHL record for a left wing), Nicklas Backstrom (team-high 55 assists, Calder Memorial Trophy finalist for top rookie) and Mike Green (league-best 18 goals by a defenseman). Ovechkin turned 23 this week, and he's the oldest of that trio.
Other key players returning include forwards Alexander Semin (26 goals), Laich (21 goals), Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov, who helped Washington win 11 of its last 12 games to earn the Southeast Division title.
By the time the Capitals lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime of Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs, the franchise's self-image and reputation were revamped.
"It's good when teams respect you and teams know you're a good team. We deserve that," Ovechkin said. "We play hard, we're working hard in practice, we support each other."
Clearly, opponents view Washington differently.
Just ask goalie Jose Theodore, the 2002 NHL MVP who signed a $9 million, two-year contract as the Capitals' lone significant offseason addition.
"Looking maybe two or three years back, we all knew they had some great talent. But last year, they saw that they could put everything together and they could be one of the best teams," Theodore said. "We saw what they did the second half of the season, and when we played against these guys, I said, 'These guys are going to be good for a long time."'
He sounded undaunted by the prospect of replacing the departed Olie Kolzig, Washington's No. 1 goalie for a decade, and Cristobal Huet, who won his last nine regular-season starts after being acquired in a trade.
Still, Theodore's play will be among the main story lines for Washington heading into the new season, which begins Oct. 10 at Atlanta.
"We're pretty good, and we're on the right track to getting really good," Boudreau said on the eve of his first training camp as an NHL coach. "The players finally believe that they're capable of being a very good team when they put their mind to it." Notes: Backstrom (right ankle) won't participate in Saturday's opening practice, Boudreau said. "We want to be overly cautious. This is still September. You know those ankles -- they're such a weird injury," Boudreau said. ... Captain Chris Clark (groin) and Michael Nylander (torn left rotator cuff), who both missed the end of last season, are ready for the start of camp. ... The team made three roster moves Friday: First-round draft pick Anton Gustafsson was returned to his Swedish team; D Keith Seabrook, a 2006 draftee, was returned to the juniors; D Craig Switzer was released.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)