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Fantasy players noticed the change first.

Up until last Saturday night's rout of the Calgary Flames, Washington Capitals defenceman Mike Green had exactly two points to show for October. Two points. For the NHL's leading scorer among defencemen for two years running. Green isn't just an offensive force from the blueline, he is the offensive force from the blueline in the NHL today, a perfect foil for Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and all those talented go-go forwards on the Capitals' roster.

Now, Green did miss three games this season because of a shoulder injury, but even at that, it was a comparatively modest output by his usual standards. Green is his generation's Paul Coffey, a fluid skater with a gambler's instinct who, more often than not, can compensate for a defensive gaffe through sheer speed. But Green's ability to put up regular-season points hasn't always translated into strong playoff results, so this year, in the Capitals' new commitment to becoming better defensively, coach Bruce Boudreau is using Green and Jeff Schultz as his shutdown defensive pair.

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No, that is not your imagination.

The Capitals enter Wednesday's date with the Toronto Maple Leafs tied for the fourth-best defensive record in the league, and Green, according to Boudreau, is a big part of that development.

"I just wish people could see him through my eyes," said Boudreau, a touch wistfully. "He has been outstanding defensively. So now people are saying, 'Well, how come you're not scoring?' I just told Mike not to change a thing. He's our best player, game in and game out. When he missed those three games, he was sorely, sorely missed.

"He's a good player - and he's matured and he's done all the things he's had to do."

Boudreau is a bit tetchy these days when it comes to evaluating Green's play. You can tell there's loyalty in their relationship, stemming from the fact that both apprenticed patiently in the Capitals farm system, before getting the chance to step up to the NHL level. Both have been head-over-heels successful since they arrived and the only thing left to prove is that when April rolls around and the quest for the Stanley Cup begins again, that they are capable of playing good defence, as required.

Green, for his part, is carrying a small but noticeable chip on his shoulder, when it comes to a discussion of his production and contributions. Coffey, it is worth remembering, went through a similar period - needing time to woo Norris Trophy voters to his side, not everyone convinced that points alone are what makes a defenceman great.

"Our job is to shut down top lines now and we take pride in that," Green says. And how, you may ask, is that different than before? Green averaged 25 1/2 minutes of ice time a game last season so he would have had to go out against top lines then, too.

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"At times, yes," answered Green, "but I think we were worried more about who I was on the ice with on our team and creating chances. Now, it's about stepping up and playing a complete game. So my role has had to change a little this year and that's fine."

And if that change in job definition takes away from Green's numbers, he's okay with that.

"You know what?" he said. "I'm just going to do my job. Whatever's asked of me by the coaches, that's what I'm going to do. If they ask me to put up numbers and get up in the play, then that's what I'll do. I'm not worried about the outcome at the end of the season - how many points or goals I have. I'm worried about doing my job and helping my team win."

In the past, teams (such as the Detroit Red Wings) have asked players (such as Steve Yzerman) to transform themselves into a more defensively sound version of themselves in order to win a championship. It hasn't happened as much to defencemen, so this intriguing but necessary experiment, will be worth monitoring all season long.

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