Washington Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau is ringmaster of the greatest show on ice, with Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Green propelling a high-powered offence that harkens back to the days of Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers.
The Capitals symbolized a dynamic year for the NHL, on the ice. The season featured three engaging playoff rounds including the Caps' seven-game loss to eventual champion Pittsburgh in the second round, the revitalization of a pair of Original Six teams (Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks), a successful Winter Classic, and the emergence of a genuine rivalry - Sid the Kid versus Alex the Great.
Since June though, most of the news has focused on the boardroom and courtroom dramas, including the battle for control of the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes, the Toronto Maple Leafs' alleged veto power, the Tampa Bay Lightning's ownership implosion, the NHL Players' Association axing its third executive director since July of 2005, Dany Heatley's pending divorce from the Ottawa Senators, and an unexplainable purge in the Blackhawks front office.
Forever it has been said the NHL must be great to survive the people who run it.
And mercifully for the league, the summer of discontent ends this weekend as training camps open for the 2009-10 season, with the Vancouver 2010 Games on the horizon. Just as Gretzky came along to stabilize the game in the aftermath of the WHA expansion, and Mario Lemieux arrived as the league's dynasty era was ending, now eyes can turn again to Generation Next - Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Art Ross Trophy winner Evgeni (Geno) Malkin.
"We had our first rookie practice the other day and 500 people showed up," Boudreau said. "They're all excited about hockey, but nobody's mentioning any of the off-ice stuff. They're just waiting for the puck to drop."
Same situation in St. Louis, according to team president John Davidson. The Blues became a factor on the local sports scene again, as did the Capitals in Washington, as one of half-dozen NHL franchises emerging to take on traditional fading powers. The Blues surged after the all-star game to sixth place from 15th in the Western Conference standing, making the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season.
"The hockey in our league is so good and so close and so professional that it dwarfs all the other stuff that's going on," said Davidson, a former goalie and broadcaster. "I mean, how many blowouts do you see nowadays? Not many. The only time you see a blowout, it usually has to do with scheduling and travel, which bites everybody once in a while."
In theory, the 2010 Games should make for an even more unpredictable season if, as expected, the stronger teams provide the largest number of Olympians. Two-thirds of the league's players will get a two-week holiday and a chance to recharge their batteries, just as they're approaching the traditional dog days. Meanwhile, the crème de la crème will be involved in hockey at its highest level, in a tournament that will tax them emotionally and physically.
The last time the NHL participated in an Olympics - 2006 - the top-four seeded teams in the Western Conference all lost in the opening playoff round. The No. 1 seed Red Wings fell to the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers as their players, many of them Swedes who'd won the gold medal in Turin, couldn't gear up for a second emotional push.
"What the Olympics create is a drive to be at your best in February," Davidson said. "In turn, you hope it's not the focus, that playing for your team and helping your team make the playoffs is the focus."
In an age of parity, in which only a handful of scorched-earth rebuilding programs (New York Islanders, Colorado Avalanche and likely Phoenix) will struggle, the majority of NHL teams believe their playoff chances are legitimate. Until further notice, however, the Pens remain the team to beat.
"It's really scary for the rest of us in the league, to see that many young players that know what it takes to win," said Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock. "It's dangerous for the rest of us. I hope they're really tired when they start, but I have a feeling they won't be."
That's partly because the core is so young. Goalie Marc-André Fleury is 25, Malkin 23, Crosby only 22, and all are signed to multiyear contracts.
Malkin became the eighth different player since 2001 to win the NHL scoring title this past season, finishing three points ahead of Ovechkin and 10 ahead of Crosby. Malkin also captured the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, while Crosby served as undisputed emotional leader.
For all of his various skills, Hitchcock believes Crosby's No. 1 attribute is his competitiveness, which is exactly how Boudreau describes Ovechkin. "Ovie thrives on competition of any sort," he said. "He's as freakin' a competitor, in any sort of game, as I've ever seen."
In a perfect world, the Capitals and Penguins will reprise their playoff meeting again next spring. Washington lost two of its Russian players (Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov) to the Continental Hockey League and replaced them with Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison. Knuble's addition was considered pivotal; he is a big-bodied presence who scored 27 goals for the Philadelphia Flyers last season and may give the Capitals that extra level of grit needed to push deeper into the playoffs.
Of course, it all hinges on Ovechkin's continuing excellence. "He scored 63 goals two years ago, and last year he still won the Hart as the MVP and finished second in scoring," Boudreau said. "Despite not scoring a goal for 10 games, he was still 10 goals ahead of everybody else.
"Knowing Alex, he pushes and pushes himself to be great. I don't think you'll ever see complacency set in with him."
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