While any election result is open to interpretation, last week's mid-terms made it clear that winds of change are blowing through Washington.
And the effects are apparently being felt far beyond the halls of Congress.
|Hugs all around: Alexander Ovechkin, left, and Dainius Zubrus embrace after a goal against the Panthers. (AP)|
"We're not getting ahead of ourselves because we haven't accomplished anything yet, but we're happy with where we are," said center Brian Sutherby.
They should be. After spending much of this decade as one of the league doormats, the Capitals have emerged as one of the surprise teams in the first six weeks, thanks to their best start (8-5-4) in 15 seasons.
Contradicting the widespread preseason predictions that had them contending for a lottery pick, the Capitals are solidly in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and with a revitalized offense led by super sophomore Alexander Ovechkin and strong goaltending from veteran Olaf Kolzig, they are developing a level of confidence that would have been entirely out of place only a few months ago.
"Right now, we look at every game like we can win and not just fight hard and make things respectable," said forwardDainius Zubrus, who has endured many of the organization's darkest days since coming from Montreal in a 2001 trade. "Last year, it was a little bit harder because even on our best nights, we weren't really good enough."
Blame that on the residual effect of a fire sale in the months leading up to the lockout, when the financially bleeding team was forced to dump expensive, high-profile stars like Jaromir Jagr, Sergei Gonchar and Robert Lang. The payroll purge was demoralizing, but it returned young prospects and draft picks and created a new philosophical direction for the organization.
Still, some growing pains had to be endured. The post-lockout version of the Capitals finished 27th overall and 22 points short of an Eastern Conference playoff spot, and in the bottom third of the league in offense, defense and special teams. On the surface, the only bright spot seemed to be the incredible Rookie of the Year season by Ovechkin, who finished with 52 goals and 106 points, but for those who scratched a little deeper, there were signs of a team that was starting to find its way.
"I don't think many people realized how much we were improving, especially after the Olympic break," said Kolzig. "We were over .500 from then on and that's usually the toughest time to win because teams are battling for playoff spots.
"We eliminated Atlanta and beat Tampa Bay down the stretch, and if you look at how many games we lost last season by one goal (26), it shows that the margin was really fine. Our special teams are a lot better this season, and if we would have gotten one more power-play goal a game last year or given up one less short-handed, it could have been a big difference."
The Capitals special teams have been a little better, ranking in the middle of the pack in both categories, and they have improved themselves with the offseason additions of defenseman Brian Pothier and forwards Alexander Semin and Richard Zednik. Yet the most noticeable difference seems to be the work ethic and preparation they are bringing to each game.
"They're a very tough team to play against now," said a scout from a division rival.