WASHINGTON (AP) Clean shaven and wearing blue Toronto Maple Leafs gear that looked fresh out of the box, Brooks Laich fondly remembered his 12 years in Washington Capitals red - especially this season.
''The sense that we had with this year's team was there was something very special in the works,'' Laich said.
Something really special could be yet to come, but the Capitals on Tuesday night became the first NHL team to clinch a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and they did it with 13 games left on their schedule. Clinching so fast was ''unexpected'' even inside the Washington locker room, forward Justin Williams said, but to former players it's not that much of a shock.
''It's not a surprise for me,'' said former goaltender Michal Neuvirth, now with the division-rival Philadelphia Flyers. ''They had a great team on paper before the season already.''
On paper, the Capitals looked like a potential Cup contender. On the ice, they've been a buzz saw.
With goaltender Braden Holtby racking up the wins and on pace to break Martin Brodeur's single-season record, superstar Alex Ovechkin scoring goals at his usual historic pace, center Evgeny Kuznetsov breaking out and the defense succeeding amid injuries, Washington is an absurd 50-14-5 with a league-leading 105 points. That's 14 points ahead of the rest of the field with extra games to play.
Former coach Bruce Boudreau, now with the Anaheim Ducks, told the Orange County Register that the Capitals have ''the combination of speed and size and they can play any way you want to play'' with a goaltender ''that's as good as anybody in the world right now.''
This is an even more impressive show of dominance than Boudreau's 2009-10 Presidents' Trophy-winning group that racked up 121 points.
''I've been there when we've had 120 points in a season, but yeah, I knew they were a good team,'' said former defenseman Mike Green, now with the Detroit Red Wings. ''I think with the additions that they made, they really helped their team out and created more offense, which I didn't think was possible, but they've done really well and their goaltender, Holtby, has really been the difference, I think.''
To the Capitals, it's just in a day's work. They've outscored opponents 87-54 in the third period alone on the way to clinching their eighth playoff appearance in the past nine years.
It's the second berth in as many years for coach Barry Trotz, who pegged winning the Metropolitan Division as the goal going into training camp. That's next, along with wrapping up the top seed in the Eastern Conference and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
''We got a chance to sort of win the league,'' Trotz said. ''I think it's just pride of if you do that, then you've been a good team for a lot of games in a very hard league. That'll probably be next on the list of things to do. Obviously we've got to win our division as well - those two things.
''If we can get those two things accomplished, it starts the next season, and we know that we want to try to be the team that comes out of the East.''
That's the big challenge for the Capitals, who have yet to make it past the second round in the Ovechkin era. Williams, who has three Cup rings, talked of ''bigger goals'' minutes after clinching, and everyone will be watching the Capitals this spring to see what they can do.
''They've had a great season so far,'' Green said. ''The hardest part is getting in the playoffs. They've done that well. They've put themselves in a good position, but anything can happen in the playoffs.''
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