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Simple changes help Caps turn season around

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FIRST PERIOD

Why are Alex Ovechkin(notes) and the Washington Capitals playing so much better? To Ovechkin, it's simple.

"It's time to play," Ovechkin said. "It's time to be good."

Ovechkin asked someone to confirm exactly how many games remained.

Ten, he was told.

"We have to be ready for playoffs," he said.

That, of course, is when the Capitals will show whether they have truly transformed from a skilled team built for regular-season success into a gritty group worthy of hoisting the Stanley Cup.

If the last 10 games are any indication, the story is playing out just as the Capitals hoped when they struggled earlier this season and decided to change their ways. They're on a 9-1 run, having won nine consecutive games before losing Wednesday night to the Detroit Red Wings, 3-2, in the second of a back-to-back set on the road. They have 92 points, tied with the Wings for third-most in the league, one behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the most in the Eastern Conference.

Some key players are out with injuries, including Jason Arnott(notes), a key acquisition at the trade deadline; Nicklas Backstrom(notes), their first-line center; and Mike Green(notes), their best defenseman. But all are expected to be back relatively soon.

"When they're going to be healthy, we're going to be a scary team," Ovechkin said. "Right now, we scary."

It was a different kind of scary Dec. 12, when the Capitals lost to the New York Rangers, 7-0. HBO was following them for the behind-the-scenes reality series "24/7 Penguins/Capitals: The Road to the NHL Winter Classic." The cameras caught their lowest point – an eight-game losing skid – but also their turning point. General manager George McPhee looks back on a meeting he had with coach Bruce Boudreau that HBO showed everyone.

"I said, 'This might be the best thing that ever happened to us,' and maybe it will be, because we just changed our philosophy," McPhee said. "It was time to really buckle down defensively."

In 2009-10, the Capitals were a high-flying offensive unit that won the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top regular-season team but flamed out in the first round of the playoffs. Now they weren't scoring enough to overcome their defensive deficiencies. So they changed their system and style. Boudreau said they "just tweaked two things, and that was it." McPhee said they switched from a "high-risk pressure attack" to being "a little more conservative, being a little smarter." Others say they became the Trapitals.

It took time to adjust, but it worked. And then McPhee added Arnott along with winger Marco Sturm(notes) and defenseman Dennis Wideman(notes). Arnott gave the Caps experience and leadership, filled a big hole at second-line center and started bringing out the best in winger Alexander Semin(notes). Sturm and Wideman helped the power play.

"That was the interesting thing of the whole transaction, with [Arnott] and the other two veterans we brought in," McPhee said. "Our team really responded to it. The three of these guys have played well for us, but everybody else elevated their own game."

Ovechkin elevated his even before that. He has 10 goals and 24 points in his past 19 games. He looked like his old self Wednesday night against the Wings, racing up the middle of the ice, snapping a shot that whooshed between the legs of defenseman Brad Stuart(notes) and past goaltender Jimmy Howard(notes) into the upper part of the net.

Even though Ovechkin is on pace for 33 goals, which would be 13 fewer than he has ever scored before, and 85 points, seven fewer than he has ever produced before, his bad season ain't so bad. With 75 points, he's tied for fifth in the NHL in scoring.

"I think it might have been a little bit of hangover from the year before and not having success in the Olympics, not having success in the playoffs," McPhee said. "It bothered him – a lot. But he's back to … I think he sees the finish line now."

Ten games to go. Time to be good.

SECOND PERIOD

To get serious about its new return-to-play protocol for concussions, the NHL should not leave it up to team physicians. It should have neurologists contracted to cover games in each city, and they should be completely independent – paid by the league, or perhaps the league and the NHL Players' Association.

The new protocol that took effect Wednesday night was a step in the right direction. If a player is suspected of having a concussion, no longer can he be examined by a trainer on the bench in the cacophony of the arena. He must be examined by a doctor in a quiet area, and he must pass a test. Concussions symptoms aren't just physical. They're cognitive. This should help catch players who feel fine but aren't – or players who just say they feel fine because they want to get back out there to win a job or a game.

But team physicians generally are orthopedists, not neurologists, and though they are qualified to diagnose concussions, they aren't necessarily experts. One NHL team physician said he is conservative in his approach but has seen counterparts on other teams allow players to return when he wouldn't.

Then there is the question of allegiance. Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero said he might have his team physician travel to road games. I know he's simply saying that he trusts his own doctor, and it avoids even the appearance that the opposing team's doctor might be influencing the game by holding out a Penguin. But think about that: If the home doctor holds out a road player, it could cause controversy. But if the road team relies on its own doctor to keep a player in the game, it could still cause controversy. There could be at least the appearance that it was for the wrong reasons.

It would be expensive to hire an independent neurologist to cover 41 regular-season games in each city, plus preseason and playoff games. But wouldn't it be more expensive to have players making millions of dollars in salary – players who are supposed to be generating million of dollars in revenue – sitting on the sidelines because concussions weren't diagnosed properly? Perhaps the owners could contribute to a fund. Perhaps the players, to invest in their own safety, should contribute, too.

THIRD PERIOD

Go to the Twitter account of @NHLShanny – a.k.a. Brendan Shanahan(notes), the NHL's vice president of hockey and business development. Scroll down a little bit, and you'll find a tweet from Jan. 19.

"I still believe something LIKE these on all players would HELP reduce concussions," Shanahan wrote.

Shanahan included a link to a picture. At his feet on a hardwood floor are the barely-there Cooper shoulder pads he wore for the majority of his 21 NHL seasons.

"I think maybe my first year or two, I wore what the team gave me, and then I found an old pair in the shed," said Shanahan, who broke into the league with the New Jersey Devils in 1987-88. "Used them in summer hockey and then just never stopped."

Shanahan isn't saying players should wear what he did – "not quite mine," he said – or that smaller shoulder pads would solve the problem. But he's working with Mathieu Schneider(notes), a former Detroit teammate now with the NHLPA, to see if further adjustments to equipment can play a role in cutting down concussions.

When you wear shoulder pads like Shanahan's, you have to be conscious of how you hit your opponent. If you don't hit him just right, you could hurt yourself. But when you wear some of the large, bulky shoulder pads a lot of players wear today, you can run around recklessly. You might not feel much of an impact that could concuss someone else.

"When does a piece of equipment go from self-protection to potential weapon against the opposition, whether it's intentional or unintentional?" Shanahan said.

Good question. And equipment was the first part of the five-point plan outlined by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman at the general managers' meetings this week.

"We don't want to jeopardize player protection, but we want to make sure equipment isn't too large and in a position to … do more damage," Bettman said.

OVERTIME

Now that Shanahan has received feedback from individual players and the players' association, he expects the league will hold another Fantasy Draft before next year's All-Star Game in Ottawa – having the captains pick the teams on a TV show, all the way down to the last man sitting.

"We're going to talk about some tweaks," Shanahan said. "But I think the general idea will be the same."

Shanahan said he received an e-mail from Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), a former Detroit teammate, saying it was an honor to have one of the teams named after him in the first All-Star Game under the new format this year in Raleigh, N.C. He said he received no demands from the players or the union to change things, even though some – most notably Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke – were unhappy Leafs winger Phil Kessel(notes) was left alone in his folding chair at the end of the event.

"I personally felt that the show could have been tightened up, but I think in the end what the players came away with – and what Phil Kessel even came away with – was, it was an entertaining, fun event," Shanahan said. "I think it was people sort of on the outside that were more uncomfortable with it than the players themselves."

Hey, Kessel received a new Honda and $20,000 for charity for being the last pick, and when he was on a eight-goals-in-eight-games tear recently, coach Ron Wilson joked it was because he was feeling really good about driving his new car around town.

"I think we could do it all over again and make it a little bit more comfortable for all those involved," Shanahan said. "And the other thing people didn't know then that they know now, when it comes down two to players, probably one of them is hoping to go last as opposed to second-last. That changes the dynamic as well."

SHOOTOUT

• Several NHL teams are for sale or looking for investors, including the Devils, Leafs, Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes, Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues. Considering teams like the Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning sold recently – and the league is trying to close the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes – how many buyers are left out there? How badly does this hurt franchise values?

• The NHL still hopes Glendale can sell the $100 million in bonds essential to the sale of the Coyotes to Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer, despite the Goldwater Institute's announcement that it will sue the city for breaking Arizona law against subsidizing private business. "The fact that we're continuing to work on it would be sign that we still think we can get it done," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. The city and the league don't think the public watchdog group has a case and doubt it will actually sue, but they have to convince someone to take the risk of buying the bonds shortly or the deal will fall through and the team likely will move to Winnipeg.

• During the general managers' meetings, the Sabres' Darcy Regier asked Bettman to compare the average man games lost to concussions this season to last season. Bettman told the group that last season, the average concussion resulted in seven man games lost. This season, the number is nine. It could be that the concussions this season are more severe or the worst cases skew the statistic, but some GMs concluded that the problem seems worse at least partly because concussions are treated more conservatively.

• As one GM put it, the United States has books full of laws, but it still has jails full of criminals. No matter what rules the NHL adopt, players will still break them, players will still get hurt, and people will still be unsatisfied. Of emphasized charging and boarding penalties, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said: "If we make these changes and start calling it, there's still going to be controversial hits. 'Well, that should have been a charge. That should have been a board.' We're never going to avoid that."

• Remember that the new return-to-play protocol is the only change that took effect immediately. All of the other ideas require more discussion, and any specific changes still must go to the competition committee and receive approval from the board of governors. "The risk coming out of a meeting when you haven't enacted a rule change is, people say, 'Well, you didn't get anything done,' " Burke said. "I think we got a lot done, and moving forward we'll start to address this more aggressively. We don't like in-season changes. It's hard to say to players, 'We've done it this way for three-quarters of the season, and now we're going to change it.' "

• He said it: "How did I make the game faster? By retiring?" – Shanahan, who helped initiate rule changes that opened up the game after the 2004-05 lockout and retired as a player in '09.

@cotsonika Tweet of the week: "As Alex Ovechkin carries puck up ice, Detroit fan yells: "Break his femur!" And we're so worried about player safety."