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Southeast: Caps memorable day; 'Canes still alive

Friday, 01.08.2010 / 5:00 PM / Division Notebooks

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

The fifth day of 2010 certainly will go down as a memorable one for Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee.

On Tuesday morning, coach Bruce Boudreau told his players two-time Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin would become the 14th captain in team history. Following the announcement, Ovi's teammates stood and applauded -- something that certainly took both Boudreau and McPhee by surprise.

"When Bruce raised the issue with Alex, his response was 'Well, I'd love to be captain, but only if my teammates want it that way,' which really explains why he's the right guy," McPhee told NHL Live!. "When Bruce was doing some interviews with our players the last few days and asked the question, it was unanimous that he was the guy.

"Then when he announced it to the team (Tuesday) morning, there was a roar that came out of that room that surprised all of us," McPhee said. "We knew they wanted it that way, but it was a great moment and they all stood up and applauded."

After the Caps snapped a three-game losing streak with a 4-2 victory against Montreal in Ovechkin's first game as captain, McPhee saw Washington's 2008 first-round draft pick (27th overall), defenseman John Carlson, score the overtime winner for Team USA against Canada in the gold medal game of the World Junior Championships in Saskatoon Tuesday night.

Carlson, who scored twice in the gold-medal game, finished the tournament with 4 goals and 7 points in 7 games.

"At some point, (playing in international events and in the minor leagues) has got to make them better players," McPhee said. "When you get into these pressure situations, the more you experience it, the better you can handle it and you want to see whether they'll wilt during these things or will they embrace it and elevate their game and John certainly did.

"We're fortunate that when we drafted him out of the USHL, he wasn't required to go back to junior even though he was 19. He played one year for Dale Hunter in London (of the Ontario Hockey League) and did a terrific job," McPhee said. "He's in the AHL and has excelled there, so the development is going very well for this young man and when the time is right, he'll start playing games here."

Perhaps even as early as next season.

Changes in Carolina? -- Chip Alexander of the Raleigh News & Observer caught up with Carolina Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford last week to discuss the team's disappointing start to the 2009-10 campaign.

As you might expect, Rutherford wasn't happy and, really, who could blame him? The 'Canes were 11-23-7 at the halfway point this season and currently rank 30th in the League with 29 points.

"We weren't very good," Rutherford told Alexander. "There are many reasons why, but there's no use to list them all. It was just one of those things. It was the perfect storm in everything, in every way. But it's time to move forward."

Carolina coach Paul Maurice doesn't understand how a team comprised of basically the same players that reached the Eastern Conference Finals one year earlier can struggle so mightily the following season.

"I think, for me, it's been shocking," Maurice said. "Some of our play and then some of the situations around the team with the strangeness of the injuries and the length of some of them."

The Hurricanes are a League-worst 3-14-4 on the road, are last in goals scored (104) and 28th in goals against (150).

"A hot streak in January could still give us a chance," Rutherford said. "We're fortunate we're in the right conference. If we were in the West, I'd say we were definitely out of it, but in the East, with a good January, we could make things interesting."

It certainly isn't far-fetched to think Rutherford will strike a deal with another team sometime in the near future. In fact, Rutherford was on 99.9 The Fan on Tuesday and admitted that he misjudged the personnel on the team and said that, win or lose, the makeup of the group would be changed by next season.

"Things are starting to open up now as far as moving players," he said. "It's not like we're giving up on the second half, but there are some players we are developing who are closer to playing here. We won't just move someone out just to move someone out. We will try to build assets, whether it's trading for a player or for drafts picks or getting a spot open for a player from Albany."

Victorious Vokoun -- A rough start has certainly turned into a favorable finish at the midway point in the season for Florida Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun.

Behind a defense that added five new players, the Panthers began the season in Europe and were in a state of jet lag for the longest time.

But while Vokoun started the season 1-7-1, he's gone 11-7-6 since. He's 5-4-1 over his last 10 starts and is among the top 10 goalies in the League in save percentage (.924) and shots faced (1,152). He's currently 12-14-7 with three shutouts.

"Our team play was pretty poor the first 10 games of the season and he took the brunt of that, left alone a lot of times," Panthers coach Pete DeBoer said. "I'm much more comfortable with him, just getting to know him. He's been very good and his commitment is something you never question. When I look at the first 40 games he's been real good. The reality of our situation for a playoff push, he's going to have to be real good, plus some."

Vokoun will represent and likely start for the Czech Republic in the 2010 Olympics. It'll mark his third Olympic appearance.

"Every game is tough," Vokoun said. "You have to be ready to play and work on your game constantly because whenever you fix something, something else breaks. I have to work hard on my game to feel good. That helps me with my confidence and I play better in the game.''

Surging Smith -- Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Mike Smith is slowly but surely regaining the form that made him such an attractive target to the Lightning two seasons ago.

"He's really gotten into a groove," Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said. "He's challenged guys and challenged himself. He didn't like the way he was playing about a month ago and he's worked at it. And he's challenged guys to get better by his play."

Smith was acquired by the Lightning in a trade with the Dallas Stars for 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Brad Richards in February 2008.

The fifth-season goalie was actually named the NHL's second star of the week after stopping 89 of 93 shots and posting a 1.31 goals-against average, .957 save percentage and 2-0-1 record in games played Dec. 27 through Jan. 2 -- helping his team score victories against Boston and Pittsburgh.

He's allowed just 18 goals over his last seven starts -- a 2.57 GAA.
 
"I had some stretches last year where I played well," Smith said. "The results weren't necessarily there, but as of late, I've been seeing the puck and making saves at key times in the game when it could go either way."

The Russian connection -- Maxim Afinogenov is looking forward to joining Atlanta Thrashers teammate Ilya Kovalchuk at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver next month as a member of the Russian national team. It'll be Afinogenov's third Olympic appearance.

"It's unbelievable," Afinogenov told NHL.com. "It's a big honor to be named to represent my country. It's every hockey players dream and I'm looking forward to it. Everybody is so good -- all the forwards and defensemen."

Kovalchuk, who has notched 22 points in 14 of the last 17 games, will also be donning a Russian sweater at the Winter Games for the third time in his career. The Thrashers' captain is glad Afinogenov is being rewarded for such a great season. The first-year Thrasher is second in scoring behind Kovalchuk with 39 points. Kovalchuk has produced a team-leading 25 goals and 47 points.

"It's great," Kovalchuk said of Afinogenov's selection to the team. "We play together like 40 games and we feel comfortable to play with each other. There's good understanding and good communication and he's definitely a big part of our line. He creates so much room and the way he works on the ice, he's shown his game here."

Kovalchuk and Afinogenov currently work the wings on a line with towering center Nik Antropov.

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com


Quote of the Day

Obviously a lot happened in a short period of time. At the end of the day, considering everything I went through, I really felt close to my teammates and I really feel like what we accomplished, I know we didn't win it all. ... I'm really proud of how we got there and what we did once we got there.

— Rangers forward Martin St. Louis to Jim Cerny of BlueshirtsUnited.com