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For unbeaten Washington, the NHL playoffs are a Capital idea @NHLdotcom

WASHINGTON - Alex Ovechkin is as enthusiastic as they come, whether the topic is scoring goals or his fancy car or his new gap-toothed smile. Still, it's striking to hear the star winger discuss the Washington Capitals' strong start.

"For us right now," Ovechkin was saying the other day, "every game is like the playoffs."

Pssst, Alex. A friendly reminder: This is hardly the stretch drive. It's October. Oh, and another thing: Your team is 3-0. The NHL's regular season lasts 82 games.

Then again, five teams began last season with that record, and all reached the playoffs. Washington has started this well only three times in franchise history - and qualified for the post-season each time.

"We want to make the playoffs. We want to win," Ovechkin continued. "This is the big difference from last year to this year."

What a difference, indeed - in talent, in results, in outlook. With a regulation victory at the New York Rangers on Friday, the Capitals will match the best start in franchise history at 4-0, something they last did in 1997-98 en route to reaching the Stanley Cup final.

Not that they're getting ahead of themselves.

"We have to ... not get too high, not get too low. Same level. We haven't won anything yet," goalie Olie Kolzig said. "All we've had is a good start."

Yet Capitals coach Glen Hanlon does not begrudge Ovechkin's playoff talk one bit. Washington hasn't reached the post-season since 2002-03, and it finished 27th of 30 teams in each of Ovechkin's first two seasons.

In other words, the excitement is overdue.

"He likely feels like the rest of the players: There's something special that's starting to build here," Hanlon said. "We all have spent a couple of years here where we've worked extremely hard to keep our heads above water. And he can see sort of some fruits for his labors, and he's having fun with it."

Ovechkin's hardly the only one.

Kolzig peppers his sentences with references to the playoffs. So does captain Chris Clark. Team owner Ted Leonsis, too.

"That's the goal that we've set," Leonsis said. "We need 45 more wins."

The thinking around these parts certainly has changed, right along with the revamped red jerseys, team logo and team motto: "New Look. New Season. New Attitude."

"The last couple of years was all about playing hard and playing our best, and the outcome will be what it is," Clark said. "Now our outlook is, 'Win every game."'

Given where the Capitals were recently, it's fascinating to hear Hanlon trot out various statistics about trends among playoff teams. After beating the New York Islanders 2-1 Monday, he noted how the past three NHL champions were a combined 23-2-5 through 10 games.

"It seems like starts are so important in this league," Hanlon said.

Before beating the Carolina Hurricanes 2-0 Saturday, the coach pointed out that no team that made last season's playoffs had a losing record in its division.

Sounds like someone's been studying up.

Perhaps with good reason, if three games can be considered indicative of anything. The Capitals have allowed only two goals, a 0.67 goals-against average that ranks second in the league; last season's 3.30 GAA ranked 26th.

They're 12-for-12 in penalty killing. They're 2-0 on the road. They've already produced more shots in a game (40 in a season-opening 3-1 victory at Atlanta) than in any game last season, while also figuring out a way to win with only 12 shots (against the Islanders).

And they've managed all of that while Alexander Semin, second on the club last season with 38 goals, missed two games with an injured right ankle.

"We know Washington from last year as a hardworking team. Now they have a combination of skill and good players and grit," Carolina defenceman Glen Wesley said. "They have all the ingredients now."

The main building blocks were Ovechkin - the 22-year-old, highlight-reel forward who was the NHL's top rookie in 2005-06 and already has more than 200 career points - and Kolzig - the 37-year-old goalie who has played for only one team.

So far, they've been as good as advertised: Ovechkin has three points, while Kolzig has stopped 53 of 54 shots in two starts.

But it's the off-season additions who really are generating enthusiasm. The team raised its salary-cap number from $30.4 million to $39.5 million - still well under the maximum of roughly $50 million, but a jump in payroll that appears to have been money spent wisely.

"Right now, the Capitals is not one player, not two players. It's a whole team," Ovechkin said. "This atmosphere is unbelievable."

Viktor Kozlov, a centre brought in to pair with Ovechkin, has a point in every game, including two goals. Defenceman Tom Poti leads the team in ice time. Michael Nylander has a goal and assist. Rookie Nicklas Backstrom has two assists.

"They've all been a huge help," Clark said. "We have some added firepower we got over the summer, and we want to show other teams as well as ourselves that we are a playoff-calibre team."

See? There's that word again.

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