There was no big celebration at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. In fact it wasn't anything out of the ordinary than a typical morning skate for the Capitals as they prepare to face the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight. The only difference is, the Washington Capitals took to the ice today as the reigning Southeast Division Champions for a third season in a row. An accomplishment with still 15 games remaining on the schedule.
"I don't think anyone came in rejoicing," Brooks Laich said of Caps clinching the division. "It's nice to know we are not going to finish lower than third. But other than that, we have bigger goals."
The Capitals have certainly come a long way. From just four years ago this was a team that underachieved, finishing a sore second from last in the Eastern Conference and fourth from last in the league overall. Now, not only are they considered Cup contenders, but they have clinched the Southeast title for a third year straight.
For the Caps' players, the path to this point has been a team effort from the coaching, to the management, to the players themselves.
When GM George McPhee worked on building up the Capitals to be a championship team, he did around some key players. With one building block after another he made a formidable wall of offensive talented players. Getting Alex Ovechkin in the first round of the '04 draft and building up players around him is what got the Capitals to this point.
"It's a big turnaround," Brooks Laich said. He joined the Capitals in '03-'04 in a series of trades the Capitals did in order to rebuild the team. "It's what management said to us the first day since I have been here. There is going to be a core group of guys that we're going to grow with and learn with and get better with. Now we are starting to reap the rewards of that."
Laich is an important key to the Capitals success and has been there for the hard times, as well as the good. "Back then, there was a lot of long nights," he said. "Nights that were tough when we took some lumps. But we knew down the road we were going to be a very good hockey team."
Another big piece to the puzzle was coaching. Bruce Boudreau has yet to have a season when the Caps have not clinched the division. When Gabby took the team over in November of '07 the Caps were in a bad slump losing 16 of their last 18 games. Boudreau's style of play and accountability would turn things around for the Capitals.
"It first started with the coaching change," Mike Green said. "Bruce coming in brought a lot of excitment and structure to our team and our organization."
But Boudreau would deflect any notion that the only contributing factor to the Caps' success is anything other than the boys in the locker room.
"We got really good players," Boudreau said. "Three years ago Mike Green is 21 and Jeff Schultz is 20 and Alex [Ovechkin] is 22 and Nicky [Backstrom] is 19. Now they have had two, three years of experience of being put under the gun, sort to speak. And they have gotten better, like players are suppose to get better."
"We have just kinda grown up together," Green remarked about his team's success. "A lot times when you try to build a team and add guys, sometimes there is not a lot of chemistry. The thing is, we are like best buddies. We play for each other on the ice and that's what makes it successful."
When Green was asked what keeps a team that is 33 points ahead of their divisional rival, 14 points ahead of the next team in the conference going, he responded: "The passion. The passion for the game."
There is just one today. Eric Belanger, Quintin Laing and Boyd Gordon will be the forwards sitting out tonight against the Lightning. Varlamov will be in net to start and Jeff Schultz will likely sit this one out as well.