ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) -As quickly as Alex Ovechkin's Washington Capitals soared from last in the entire NHL to first place in the Southeast Division, they tempered the excitement.
"We haven't gone anywhere yet," coach Bruce Boudreau said Thursday after practice. "We could wake up Friday and be in 11th place."
With teams as bunched as they are in the Eastern Conference, there could be plenty of movement in the standings every day through the end of the regular season. Indeed, the Atlanta Thrashers had a chance to pass the Capitals by beating Vancouver on Thursday night.
Still, the Capitals awoke that morning somewhere they hadn't been this late in a season since March 2003: atop their division.
"It's been huge," defenseman Mike Green said. "We've given ourselves an opportunity to make a run here over the next couple months to give ourselves a chance to make the playoffs."
How did Washington go from a team that was 6-14-1 on Thanksgiving Day, when coach Glen Hanlon was fired and replaced by Boudreau, to a team that has gone 20-10-4 ever since?
There are two main reasons: Ovechkin, who entered Thursday leading the NHL with 46 goals and 73 points, and Boudreau, whose biggest influence might have had more to do with what he did in the locker room than what he changed on the ice after being promoted from AHL affiliate Hershey.
"I pat them on the back and make them believe that they're good players - and they are," Boudreau said. "Sometimes that's what you need, is to feel good about yourself."
It might sound like an approach better suited to the minor leagues, where Boudreau spent more than 1,000 games as a coach before getting his first shot at the NHL. But it is an approach that clearly has been working with Washington's young team, led by the 22-year-old Ovechkin.
"We're coming to the rink with a smile every day," said Green, also 22. "When you're doing that, you're usually doing positive things and having a lot of confidence."
On Thursday, player after player pointed to Boudreau's infusion of confidence as a difference-maker for the team.
Green, who entered day leading all NHL defensemen with 14 goals in his second full NHL season, is among a group of players that was coached by Boudreau at Hershey.
"Bruce is a confident guy, and he instills confidence in his players," said Brooks Laich, one of the Hershey crew. "He says sometimes, '5-year-old kids play this game. How hard can it be?"'
Even established players like goalie Olie Kolzig - who was among those disappointed to see Hanlon go - have bought into Boudreau's message.
"Bruce has brought in a different philosophy and a different attitude," Kolzig said. "It helps that half the guys in our locker room played for him for two years, so they understand his system and the way he is, and they've responded real well to him and I think everybody else has hopped on board. We believe we can go and win every night now."
Washington also has the good fortune to be playing in the Southeast Division, the league's weakest this season. The Capitals' 57 points after Wednesday's 4-3 victory at the Philadelphia Flyers would have put them no better than third in any other division.
What pleases Washington is that its games are all meaningful these days. Next up, the Capitals host the Carolina Hurricanes, who are only one point behind them.
"Before, we just wanted to get wins. Then we expected to win," Laich said. "Now we expect to take control of games."