Before the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver took place, I was a bit nervous for the pro hockey team in Washington. Its phenomenal 14-game win streak was snapped in one-goal downers by two teams in Canada (Montreal and Ottawa) and one in St. Louis, Missouri.
The Capitals' defense was a mess, and the entire squad went on a funky, mildly chaotic three-game losing streak, where their penchant for committing minor-penalty infractions was put on full blast.
Thereafter, Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Semyon Varlamov left Verizon Center, the Kettler Iceplex in Alexandria, VA., and the NHL to represent Russia in western Canada, as did Tomas Fleischmann and Niklas Backstrom for the Czech Republic and Sweden, respectively.
With 41 wins and 90 points before the Olympic break, the Caps were still near, if not at, the top of the NHL standings. But with Ovechkin and company out for two and a half weeks, there were concerns about the team's second-half efforts, even before the Olympic closing ceremonies signed off with the billionth rendition of the lugubrious national anthem O Canada.
The questions persisted:
Would owner Ted Leonsis and general manager George McPhee make some clever personnel moves or stand pat before the March 3 trade deadline to turn the already dangerous Caps into a lethal machine come the playoffs?
Would Ovechkin and his pals in Washington be taken seriously on both offense and defense in the latter part of the regular season and into the postseason?
Would any of the five Caps be injured in Olympic play or be too slow to recover once they played again in the NHL during March and April and into May and June?
Strangely enough, Russia, the Czech Republic, and Sweden each did not medal, as the USA and Canada battled it out in a scintillating 3-2 overtime win by Canada in the tournament final. The NHL's golden boy Sidney Crosby received a sweet pass from Jarome Iginla and flicked a wrister past US goalie Ryan Miller.
(Extras: Finland beat Slovakia in the bronze-medal game. In fact, both the men's and women's Olympic hockey tournaments finished in similar fashion this year: Canada-US-Finland. Do you find that surreal as well? Let me know.)
Though I'm mad that the Americans lost to Canada, I eventually found the round-robin tournament results pleasing...for selfish reasons.
Both Ovechkin and Backstrom returned better rested than Canadian hero Crosby, who spent several more hours around an Olympic-sized ice rink in the gold medal win for his country than the captain left-winger and center forward of the Caps.
Those Caps, obviously deflated for not winning a medal of any kind in Vancouver for their respective countries, as a result were able to return to practice a few days earlier than Crosby and other Canadian players, who probably joined their teams after February 28.
It is still way too early in the second half of the season to predict the top seeds of the Eastern and Western Conferences for the NHL playoffs, but I think six-seven of the best teams that will go far in the springtime are Washington, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Buffalo, Chicago, San Jose, and Colorado.
Other teams that could make some noise are Nashville, Vancouver, Buffalo, and Ottawa.
Who knows? We'll see.
But in as positive a sign as the day that head coach Bruce Boudreau named Ovechkin captain on January 5, McPhee may have discovered the final pieces of the Caps' puzzle in some key trades on March 3.
McPhee, before the late-afternoon deadline, brought back fan favorite Milan Jurcina from Columbus, along with forward Scott Walker and defenseman Joe Corvo (nice ring to the name!) from Carolina and F Eric Belanger from Minnesota for players like Brian Pothier and a few draft picks.
This might definitely help Washington in the long run (although Jurcina's hurt right now), with Corvo and Belanger sorely needed to shore up in the defensive and penalty-killing departments, areas that the Caps must not be lax about if they want to be considered serious Stanley Cup contenders this season and in the future.
Such factors as the trades enacted by McPhee, as well as the fortune of having other good players take a well-deserved break to recover from injuries and lethargy during the Winter Olympics, must have paid off in the team's game (their first since February 13) against the Buffalo Sabres last night.
This was visible, as Washington beat Buffalo at HSBC Center, 3-1, catching the Sabres' Miller, presumably America's new sentimental hero (and Winter Olympics hockey MVP) a bit off guard in his first game back at goal since last Sunday's denouement up north.
The win gave the Caps new confidence that hasn't been seen since late January-early February, as D Mike Green, C Jason Chimera, and C Boyd Gordon all scored and thus overshadowed their more-winded comrades, including the frustrated Ovechkin, who did not convert on any of his four shots.
I'm not too worried about Ovechkin, though. He still needs some time to unwind and find his groove again which, trust me, will be very soon.
Right now, he leads both his team and NHL in total points, including a tie for league goals scored, 42, with Crosby.
(Barring any late-season injury, he'll again be a finalist to win the Hart Memorial, Art Ross, and Maurice Richard Awards in June.)
Moreover, he has played in fewer games (55) this season than the remaining top five scorers (Henrik Sedin of Vancouver, Crosby of Pittsburgh, teammate Backstrom, and Joe Thornton of San Jose) due to injury and suspension.
This may bode well for the Caps, who will have some fresh, familiar legs to play with in this critical part of the regular season.
Plus the front office again made some safe yet valuable trades on Tuesday. The team has played like gangbusters since signing Mike Knuble in July. The team exponentially got better when they made the tough move of shipping out former captain Chris Clark, too.
When Ovechkin, Backstrom, and the rest collectively get their balanced scoring and team chemistry skills to perfection, the sky's the limit as to how good they could morph into before season's (and postseason's) end.
I'm expecting a Pittsburgh-Washington Eastern Conference final showdown. That or a Stanley Cup matchup between Washington and San Jose. Either way, I cannot wait for one of the two scenarios to become a reality.
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