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THE CAPS are coming off a season in which they rose from worst to first in the division over the final 14 weeks. NHL coach of the year Bruce Boudreau, whose hiring on Nov. 22 precipitated the turnaround, is back behind the bench. The team's top 20 scorers—yes, that's 20—return. Yet none of that qualifies as the primary source of optimism in Washington this season. That's still left wing Alex Ovechkin.
The Hart Trophy winner in 2007--08, Ovechkin scored the most goals (65) in a season since Mario Lemieux's 69 in 1995--96, and he amassed 60 of his league-best 112 points in the season's final 39 games—right after signing a 13-year, $124 million contract. "He's almost reached the pinnacle, where it's going to be hard to better what he has done," says Boudreau. "But he'll be trying to, and he'll feel it's a disappointment if he doesn't."
Boudreau emphasizes an aggressive puck-pursuit system—"Attack them before they attack us," he says—that creates open ice for Ovechkin and other skilled forwards such as Calder Trophy finalist Nicklas Backstrom and creative left wing Alexander Semin. The return to health of winger Chris Clark, who missed 64 games with a groin injury, and center Michael Nylander, who spent half the season on the IR with a torn rotator cuff, gives the Capitals one of the East's deepest forward units.
Washington hasn't sent a defenseman to the All-Star Game since Sergei Gonchar in 2002--03, but 23-year-old Mike Green could be on his way; he tied for first among NHL backliners with 18 goals and averaged a team-high 23:38 of ice time for an underrated unit. The Capitals' main concern is in net, where the uneven Jos� Th�odore, a free-agent pickup, takes over after an unusually strong stretch with the Avalanche at the end of last season.