The Green machine

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:24 AM ET

Mike Green has always been a quick study.

In just his second full season in the NHL, the Washington Capitals defenceman, born and raised in Calgary, is becoming a household name.

The 22-year-old's 15 goals are the most by any blueliner so far, and the nets are a lot smaller than the ones he was shooting at as a toddler.

While many of his friends were busy on the ice at rinks around the Stampede City, Green spent his energy playing indoor soccer.

"I actually started playing hockey late because all my friends played," Green says. "I wasn't playing yet, and I had nothing to do when they were out playing hockey, so I decided to start up.

"I started when I was, like, 10. I always would go out and skate with my dad on the pond, but I never played in the community at all until I told my parents I was always so bored because all my friends were out practising or playing."

Despite getting a late start, it didn't take the youngster long to catch on. He kicked off his hockey life with a NASA team in the city's northeast, then joined the AMHL's Calgary Northstars for a year before heading to junior.

"When I started, I never knew how to stop or turn backwards," he says with a laugh.

"It's kind of ironic that now that's all we do."

That's not exactly true.

Green is moving forward with the best of them these days.

He's deadly on the powerplay, and has become a threat to score on every shift as he frequently joins the rush.

If you're wondering just how valuable this previously unknown commodity has become to the Capitals, take a look at his contributions in a 3-2 overtime win Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers that pushed Washington into the Southeast Division lead.

The only blueliner sent out -- along with talented forwards Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom -- Green scored the winner 23 seconds into the extra frame on a 4-on-3 powerplay.

He now holds the franchise's single-season record with three OT goals.

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A growing group of dedicated Green loyalists has started up in Washington, where members of "Gang Green" wear the aformentioned colour to games to show their appreciation for the rising star.

While many outside of Calgary and Washington, D.C., are only just discovering Green's talents, the man who has led the Caps from post-season purgatory into what's looking more and more like their first playoff appearance since 2003 knows his star defenceman as well as any coach.

Bruce Boudreau, who replaced Glen Hanlon behind the Capitals bench Nov. 22 following the team's worst start in more than a quarter century, got to know Green in the most unifying way hockey can offer -- while guiding the young defenceman and his Hershey Bears to a Calder Cup in 2006.

With the Caps missing the playoffs and Green heading back to the minors for more toil time, they took another run at an AHL title last year.

Boudreau has continued to hand his young workhorse more responsibility, and more ice time. The coach has even jokingly compared Green to another green monster -- the Incredible Hulk.

"The madder (the Hulk) got, the stronger he got. Greener is my Hulk, because the more he plays, the stronger he gets," Boudreau told the Washington Post in December.

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Green knew he was going to get a chance to shine at the NHL level when Boudreau was brought aboard.

He remembers one of the first things his new coach said to him.

"He just said, 'You better be ready to step up and play,' " recalls Green.

In his mind, he was up to the challenge, having learned a great deal about what it takes to succeed as a professional in his first couple of years following a strong stint with the Saskatoon Blades that earned him the right to hear his name called in the first round -- 29th overall -- in 2004, before his fourth year in the WHL.

"I knew at the start of the year I was ready. You just kind of slowly work your way into this league to get an opportunity," says Green.

"With the history that we have -- he knows me as a player -- he was ready to give me an opportunity. That's what I needed. Very fortunate he was made the coach."

Boudreau deserves credit for utilizing his young talent, and forcing a core group of rising stars to carry the Caps confidently despite their lack of experience.

Green, though, recognizes he has had to take some strides to grasp just how good he can become.

"I think after playing a full year in Hershey and winning a cup down there, then the second year, playing 70 games (in the NHL) then going back down to Hershey to go for another run at the playoffs, was huge for my development," says Green.

"I think I finally, my third year pro, felt ready to step up and contribute more and be in more of an important role on a team.

"I think I finally just came into my own and things have worked out well here."

To say they've worked out well is an understatement. The fact the league's leader in goals by a defencemen was absent from the all-star game last month was criminal.

Green shook off the snub -- admitting he'd have loved to be there and was disappointed he didn't get to go to Atlanta -- and instead joined a teammate and visited Montreal for a few days.

"You want to be there and be a part of something like that. There's always next year," says Green. "I was a little disappointed, but it happens."

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Green's goal total is impressive, especially when you consider he'd never potted more than 14, even during his time in the junior ranks.

Twice he reached that mark as a Blade, but No. 15 always eluded him.

"I guess I haven't really scored too many goals (before). It's kind of humbling, I guess, to be in the situation," says Green, pausing as he tries to recall his goal totals from the past.

"I guess over the years I finally kind of learned how to score goals. I think, in the past, I would always try to pass the puck and whatnot when I had a chance to shoot."

Dave Millard, who coached Green at the bantam level in Calgary, used to say his blueliner reminded him of Scott Niedermayer.

An invited guest at the future Hall-of-Famer's home in Cranbrook, for four nights as a 14-year-old, Green has really started to resemble the smooth-skating offensive defenceman as a pro.

"It's just shooting the puck in general," says Green, who has fired more than 140 of them this season -- putting him fifth among defencemen behind Dion Phaneuf, Ed Jovanovski, Chris Pronger and Nicklas Lidstrom.

"A lot of times, as soon as you get the puck you're thinking either pass or maybe shoot, but you're not shooting to score. I think now I notice on the statistics sheet maybe I'll have five shots a game.

"In the past it may have been one or two."

Green has one of the best to learn from in Ovechkin, who never turns down a chance to put a puck on goal.

"They generally score a lot of goals," Green says of the guys who tops the shot count. "Not all of them are going to be pretty. If you can shovel one in off a body or something, they all count."


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