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Team-first approach has Capitals in first place

Friday, 12.18.2009 / 11:03 AM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

Even Bruce Boudreau is surprised when he looks at the overall League standings. There, on Thursday afternoon, sat his team with 48 points -- tops in the League.

Pittsburgh's shootout win later that night boosted them to a one-point edge over the Caps, but Boudreau's point remains valid.

"If I said I expected this, than it sounds like we're King something, but we're not," Boudreau told NHL.com Thursday in a phone interview from Vancouver, where the Capitals play Friday night. "I thought we were going to be a good team, a playoff team, but you never expect to be first overall at any point a week before Christmas. I didn't anyway. I figured the San Joses, Pittsburghs and Detroits would run away with that.

"Detroit has had their own problems with injuries, but people don't realize that we've had 130 man games already lost due to injury," he continued. "To stay in the hunt with those kinds of injuries and after this weekend we will have played 14 of our last 17 games on the road, it is pretty surprising; but pleasantly surprising for us."

The Capitals, who have been ravaged by injury, have done it with excellent goaltending, a surprisingly deep defense, forwards who know their roles and play them well, and, of course, superstars producing the way superstars ought to produce.

That formula was all on display Tuesday in Denver, where the Caps skated to a 6-1 victory against the Northwest Division-leading Colorado Avalanche.

Five guys not named Alex Ovechkin combined for all six goals. Jose Theodore turned aside 27 of the 28 shots he faced to beat his old team. Ovechkin had only one assist, giving him 38 points in 26 games, and five in the last three.

At points in the game, the Capitals were three defensemen short with Shaone Morrisonn and Mike Green hurt (thanks to a hit by David Koci) and John Erskine serving a game misconduct for going to Green's defense after Koci's hit. But Karl Alzner, Jeff Schultz and Tom Poti handled the workload it admirably with some help from Brooks Laich.

"We talk about it in the room, just how we want to be the same team no matter who is in the lineup or playing in that game," Capitals wing Eric Fehr told NHL.com. "We feel we have a lot of depth, especially at the American League level. They come in and fill holes really well. It's stuff like that that keeps us rolling."

Washington's depth at the AHL level has been a huge factor in the team's overall success. They've already used 10 different call-ups in at least two games each, including Kyle Wilson, who registered his first NHL point in his first NHL shift Tuesday night.

Keith Aucoin and Matthieu Perreault got hot for a while before going back to the Hershey Bears. Jay Beagle and Alexandre Giroux also scored goals in their short stints in Washington. All four will likely be back at some point this season.

Alzner, who was recalled Monday with Wilson, logged more than 21 minutes of ice time against the Avalanche. Boudreau said Alzner didn't even look tired even though he logged nearly half of that ice time (9:21) in the third period alone.

"Everybody that I coach, they know I expect them to be just as good as the guy that left," Boudreau said. "If Nick Backstrom went down, and knock wood that he doesn't, I'd have Keith Aucoin come up and he better do as good a job as Nick Backstrom."

A lot of critics point to the Capitals' defense as a weakness. It's an obvious argument, considering their up-tempo style has produced a League-best 124 goals (3.56 per game). But Boudreau counters by looking at the Caps' depth on the back end.

Counting Alzner, Tyler Sloan and injured defensemen Brian Pothier and Milan Jurcina, Washington has nine NHL-tested defensemen.

Boudreau lobbies hard for Green to make the Canadian Olympic squad and is thoroughly impressed with how Jeff Schultz, Green's new D partner, has been moving the puck and making great first passes out of the zone.

Washington is No. 12 in the NHL in goals-against (2.74 per game).

"None of them, other than Mike Green are big names, but we never run into trouble," Boudreau said. "You have to have depth on defense because it is such a difficult position to play. It is probably our most underrated position."

Washington is not at all underrated up front with stars like Ovechkin, Backstrom and Alexander Semin making the NHL Network's "On the Fly" highlights on a regular basis.

Does anybody realize that Laich has 25 points and Brendan Morrison, who was considered washed up after last season, has 24? Do you know that Tomas Fleischmann has 13 goals in 23 games, including 8 in the eight games Ovechkin missed due to injury or suspension?

Boudreau called Fleishmann the Caps' "biggest secret weapon."

"I mean, he's a third line left winger and he's got 13 goals in 23 games," he said. "I think he had seven goals in eight games starting the day Ovi got injured. We are lucky we've been able to get that."

Fehr, who is the third-line right wing, also got hot with 5 goals in the seven games Semin missed from Nov. 17-30. He had points in eight-straight games (5-5-10) from Nov. 23-Dec. 7 and now has 16 points and a plus-10 rating in 24 games.

"I don't know if it was as important for me as it was as important for just somebody to step up," Fehr said. "I was able to get a couple of lucky breaks and to chip in offensively. When we have a guy go down, someone has to do it."

Washington took that to heart when Ovechkin went down for six games with an upper-body strain and then for two more with a suspension. The Capitals went 6-2 without the back-to-back Hart Trophy winner and averaged an astounding 4.5 goals per game.

Boudreau was concerned that the team would cater to Ovi when he got back in the lineup each time, but that clearly hasn't been the case. Ovechkin has accounted for only seven of the Capitals' 34 goals in the last 12 games he's played.

"I am (pleased with how the team responded when Ovi came back) and I'm pleased with the way Ovi has reacted," Boudreau said. "He is realizing that it's a team game and I don't mean that in a harsh way. He's the first one to cheer for somebody else to score, but sometimes he puts so much pressure on himself that he has to be the one.

"When we have three goals, he expects to have two goals and an assist. Now that other people can do it, he doesn't have to stay on for a minute and 45 seconds. He is coming off now. I am really impressed with him."

Boudreau's impressed with his entire team.

Seriously, first-place in the NHL on Dec. 17? We knew this team would be good, but now they're gunning for the Presidents' Trophy and not totally on Ovechkin's back.

"I don't know if we're really surprised," Fehr said. "We think we have a lot more to give."

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com
Quote of the Day

It's pretty crazy, but believe me when I say we didn't draft these players with the mindset we had to because they had good hockey-playing dads. It just turned out that way. But we're certainly glad they're a part of our organization.

— Arizona Coyotes director of amateur scouting Tim Bernhardt regarding the coincidence that six of the organization's top prospects are sons of former NHL players