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Capital Change

Washington hopes a new coach steadies the team—and helps to keep the passion alive for star Alexander Ovechkin

APPLYING THE stock-market theory that even a dead cat will bounce if dropped from a great height, the two Capitals wins last week under interim coach Bruce Boudreau may signal only a brief surge rather than a turnaround for what had been the NHL's worst team. Teams tend to find their level after the burst of energy from a coaching change fades. And while Washington has forechecked more effectively since Glen Hanlon was replaced by the 52-year-old Boudreau, a fine coach for the team's AHL affiliate, the Capitals are likely to settle on the playoff fringes.

Still, Washington G.M. George McPhee felt he had to do something after the Capitals stopped responding to Hanlon during a Nov. 19 loss to Florida and again two nights later when they were routed by Atlanta. "It's not like we don't have talent," says McPhee, who signed free agents Michael Nylander and Tom Poti last summer. "But the losses piled up early, and when that happens, you seem to lose everything. You stop getting the big save. Your power play stops working. You can't win a face-off. A G.M. can't ignore that."

Neither could he ignore the potential impact that sustained losing could have on third-year left wing Alexander Ovechkin, the face and future of the franchise. Unlike Sidney Crosby, who has signed an extension with the Penguins, Ovechkin has not yet reached a deal with Washington and is in line to be a restricted free agent next summer. Ovechkin would command the maximum under the salary cap—currently slightly more than $10 million—and while the Capitals would match any contract offer, things would be far simpler for them if they locked up Ovechkin before then.

Washington, which missed the playoffs in Ovechkin's first two seasons despite his 98-goal output over that span, can ill afford to see his enthusiasm sag under the weight of losing, as happened to the Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk, who has seemed invigorated since Atlanta's Oct. 17 coaching change. Ovechkin, tied for second in the NHL with 16 goals through Sunday—two came in his second game under Boudreau—has not shown a diminished appetite despite his often futile efforts to carry a mediocre team. But Washington can't be too careful.


Psyching Them Out

Penguins goalie Dany Sabourin (below) wears white pads with concentric gold and black circles on them, which, as he squeezes the pads together, offers shooters what looks like a target. Can Sabourin—who at week's end was 4-3-1 after entering the season with a 2--9 career record—lure opponents into shooting at the five hole? "You're drawn to white pads," Montreal center Bryan Smolinski says. "They're bright. Then you see a dark color [on them] and it catches your eye, so you accidentally throw [the puck] into the pads. You try not to look at pads, but it's sort of a psychological event." Perhaps in NHL circles, Sabourin's Sherwoods are what is meant by intelligent design.

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Pierre McGuire's In the Crease

The Rangers have overcome a slow start not so much because of veteran stars but because of the mature play of three youngsters, forward Brandon Dubinsky and defensemen Fedor Tyutin and Marc Staal. At 20, Staal, projected to be a depth player this season, has become one of New York's top four defensemen and consistently makes good decisions with the puck.... After letting forward Dustin Penner go to the Oilers as a restricted free agent last summer, Ducks G.M. Brian Burke last week gave forward Ryan Getzlaf a five-year, $27 million extension. No G.M. is better at identifying his key players; Burke felt Penner was expendable. And the G.M. may get a bonus: The draft choice he got from Edmonton could turn into a lottery pick.



SINGLE-HANDED Ovechkin's scoring hasn't been enough to carry the struggling Caps.