Here come the Capitals

Playing the role of regular-season underachievers, the Washington Capitals have gotten plenty of ink.

After a strong start they started playing poorly, losing games, resulting in the firing of coach Bruce Boudreau and hiring of Dale Hunter. Even after Hunter took over, there was no quick fix.

Going into 2012, however, the Capitals seem to be heating up.

A four-game winning streak lifted Washington to 6-3-1 in its last 10 games and second place in the Southeast Division — three points behind first-place Florida. The Capitals are also the only team in the division with a positive goal differential.

The turnaround can be pinpointed to Dec. 28, when the Capitals beat the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers 4-1, ending a five-game Rangers winning streak. It was arguably the best 60 minutes the Capitals had ever played under Hunter.

"We came out playing the right way and the guys put together a good 60 minutes," Hunter told reporters after the game.

Two days later, the Capitals came together for a 3-1 win against the Buffalo Sabres, against whom the team has struggled all year. Boudreau was fired after one such loss to Buffalo in November.

But a look at the score sheet brought to mind the President’s Trophy-winning Capitals of just a few years ago. Alex Ovechkin scored two goals — one on a power play less than two minutes into the game — and Nicklas Backstrom scored his 13th goal of the year.

Add in a 4-2 comeback win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on New Year’s Eve and a 3-1 win over Calgary on Tuesday, and the Capitals are starting 2012 looking stronger than they have all season. Pushed from his usual perch among the NHL’s scoring leaders, Ovechkin is catching up with six goals in his past five games; he also has two or more points in four straight games.

The NHL recognized him as second star of the week ending Jan. 1, during which he registered five goals, two assists, and a plus-4 rating in four games. Ovechkin certainly seems to be back to his old self, and everyone is taking notice.

"(Ovechkin’s) been playing a lot better as of late, and for us to be successful we need that," Troy Brouwer told the Washington Examiner.

Ovechkin has finally been changing up his usual moves, which have long been anticipated by opposing defensemen, and is starting to find more creative ways to score. Evidently Ovechkin realized that what he was doing wasn’t working, and that he would have to step out of his comfort zone to start scoring goals again.

"Right now I start go to the net more than I usually do," Ovechkin told media members this week. "If I have opportunity to shoot, I just have to shoot the puck because if I’m not going to shoot the puck I’m not going to score. And it’s not going to be good results for me or for the team as well. I just change a little bit of (my) game (as) you can see.

"This is too good (of a) group to be in the middle, middle of nowhere. We just want to be in the playoffs."

The Capitals’ recent play has put them above the "playoff line," but the team has to keep up its effort in order to stay there. Mike Green’s return from a groin injury certainly will help, but another player may have been lost.

During Tuesday’s game against the Flames, Backstrom was elbowed in the head by Rene Bourque, a hit which resulted in a five-game penalty for Bourque. Backstrom played two shifts after the hit but was later removed, and is currently being held out while he undergoes concussion testing.

Losing Backstrom for any amount of time would be a big blow — he leads the team with 42 points. Backstrom participated in practice Thursday morning and is traveling with the team on its two-game Western road swing, but it’s not yet been determined if he will play either game.

"We’re evaluating, and it’s one of those things where you evaluate it for a few days and see how he is," Hunter told reporters.

But with the Capitals seemingly at a turning point in their season — particularly if Backstrom is healthy — the Capitals should continue to be a growing threat for opponents.

Southeast Division notes:

The Florida Panthers began the new year with controversy. Krys Barch was accused of making a racist comment to Montreal Canadiens defenseman  P.K. Subban during a game Saturday night. After a delayed disciplinary hearing, the NHL announced Thursday that Barch will be suspended for one game. "Mr. Barch has admitted making the remark, but denies that the comment was racially motivated," league executive Colin Campbell said in a statement. "While we accept Mr. Barch’s assertion, as a player in the National Hockey League, he must be held accountable for making a comment that, in the context in which it was made, and in light of the entirety of the circumstances, was offensive and unacceptable." Stephen Weiss defended his teammate, telling reporters, "It was really an unfortunate type of thing where it came out not the way he intended."

On Wednesday, the Florida Panthers officially signed John Madden to a one-year contract after he successfully passed physicals. "I think his identity will always be with the defensive side of things – his ability to take big faceoffs and to go out and chew up top minutes against other lines," coach Kevin Dineen told the Sun-Sentinel. … The news got worse for Carolina D Joni Pitkanen. In addition to his concussion, Pitkanen will be out for at least another month after undergoing knee surgery. Recovery time is expected to be four weeks, but Pitkanen still has not been cleared for contact because of his concussion, making it very unclear when he will be back in the lineup. … The Tampa Bay Lightning announced Sunday that Victor Hedman is out indefinitely with a concussion. With Hedman playing top-two minutes, it’s a big blow to a team that is already swimming in injuries. Mattias Ohlund (knee) has still not played this season, and Ryan Malone is now out with a lower-body injury suffered in practice Tuesday.