SUN Hockey Pool

Caps must take away lessons from losses

LANCE HORNBY, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 11:13 AM ET

Barack Obama must be intrigued that the NHL has a President's Trophy and that his new hometown hockey team could win it.

But the past 48 hours have shown coach Bruce Boudreau of the pitfalls of high office, as the 29th and 30th place teams, the Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes, took three of four points from his Capitals.

"Mental toughness, we've talked about it all week," a scowling Boudreau said after a quick 2-0 lead on the Leafs morphed into a 6-3 loss. "At one point you're the hunter and then you become the hunted. This was a perfect opportunity to get a little ahead of some teams and we didn't take advantage. So it's back to the drawing board."

Capitals forward Brooks Laich always thought the bottom of the Eastern Conference was a kind of optical illusion.

"(Carolina) went to the conference final last year with that team minus Joe Corvo and Toronto always plays us hard (two wins here within a few weeks). I've watched a lot of their games and they forecheck hard, work hard. Maybe they aren't the most talented team, but they never give up.

"We know teams will give us their best effort because we've been on top of the standings and they look at that as a challenge. If we don't out-work teams, regardless of our skill, we dont win."

There are some NHL coaches and players who would preach cautionary tales to the Capitals about laying off the whip when chasing first overall. For many, the pace hasn't been worth it by the time playoffs rolled around.

San Jose won the President's Trophy last year, edging the Boston Bruins 117-116. The Sharks were out after one round and the Bruins were not far behind. Since the Rangers went wire to wire with the award and the Stanley Cup in 1994, only four other teams have matched the feat.

The Caps have had their share of individual hardware the past few years, two Hart Trophys and two Pearsons won by Ovechkin, Boudreau as coach of the year and Mike Green a first-team all-star defenceman. But they're learning what Brian Burke did in Anaheim in 2007 -- get the right stuff surrounding your core players that follow orders and fulfill management's big picture.

One of nine clubs to clear 100 points that '07 season, the Ducks could legitimately say they had 20 go-to guys a night. Defenceman Scott Niedermayer won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP, but shared the glory with the likes of current Leaf Francois Beauchemin. No Duck had his name on a major regular season award.

"The President's Trophy is an admirable thing to win," Burke said, "but in Anaheim we didn't put a lot of stock in that.

"When people hear me talk about my pattern, the quintessential delineation of top six forwards, bottom six forwards and build from the blueline out is that (Anaheim) team. I stole that blueprint from Bill Torrey. Obviously, he had more success with it than I did with four Cups with the Islanders."

The Islanders had Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy, but augmented them with an ideal combination of big men, a couple of Sutters, goaltending and unsung checkers and shot-blockers. Burke once asked if Torrey could boil his hockey philosophy down in 10 minutes and the older man gave him a career lesson in less than 30 seconds:

"You have to assume you can play four different styles and beat all four styles: Be big enough to beat a big team, fast enough to beat a fast team, skilled enough to beat a skilled team and good enough on special teams to beat a club that relies on special teams."

Burke is not going to duplicate those conditions with his new team for a few years, but there is plenty to like about the Leafs turning a disastrous start into points in 11 of the past 13 games. And nights where you can knock the league's top team around are sweet for coach Ron Wilson.

"Just because you get to first overall doesn't mean you're going to lose a hockey game again," Wilson said. "What you've done in the first month (in Toronto's case, not win a home game) doesn't mean you won't win all season.

"This is a really tough league and we've been playing very well the past two weeks, so there's no reason for us to be afraid of them."

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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