Thom Loverro: Capitals drop the Hammer on Southeast Division again

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Another Southeast Division banner -- the seventh and last -- will hang from the rafters of Verizon Center after the Washington Capitals clinched the division title and a Stanley Cup playoff appearance with a 5-3 win Tuesday night at home.

Man, the Caps are sure going to miss the Southeast Division.

Since the NHL's 1998-1999 realignment, no other team has won more titles in this weak sister of a division than the Caps. And now, thanks to another realignment next season, no other team ever will.

When they write the history of the Southeast Division, the Caps will be known as the New York Yankees of the Southeast.

It was this team's ticket to the playoffs, a ticket it almost didn't punch in this lockout-shortened season.

The Caps sealed the deal Tuesday night in appropriate fashion -- with an empty net goal by Alex Ovechkin that gave Washington a two-goal lead over the Winnipeg Jets with 29 seconds remaining.

As Caps fan Stanley Kirk Burrell, who was in the house, might have said, "It's Hammer Time!" (MC Hammer was still putting out greatest hits records when the Caps began playing in the Southeast Division).

The last -- and only -- time the Caps made the Stanley Cup finals was the year before they joined the newly formed Southeast Division.

Maybe it's time for a new era -- the Adam Oates era.

The heat of the moment brings all sorts of notions that maybe it will be different this time for the Caps, who have carried the Southeast Division banner into battle year after year and promptly choked with it around their necks in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It felt different when the Caps were the NHL's dominant team in the 2009-2010 season, winning the Presidents' Trophy. (What dingy closet in Verizon Center do they keep that trophy in?) But then came the embarrassing opening-round loss to the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens.

It felt different after Joel Ward scored the game-winning overtime goal last season in Game 7 of the conference quarterfinals against the Boston Bruins. But then the Caps lost in seven to the New York Rangers in the next round.

And, God help us, it feels different this time around.

Why? Because of Oates.

General manager George McPhee finally may have gotten one right with the rookie coach. He may be the right mix of hockey smarts and people skills to get the most out of Ovechkin. A Hall of Fame player himself, Oates understands the superstar mentality.

In his induction speech in November, Oates showed he gets it, going out of his way to recognize "the privilege of playing with some special players," citing Steve Yzerman, Scott Stevens, Brett Hull, Cam Neely and Ray Bourque, whom he particularly noted for making him better as a player.

It's a speech Ovechkin may make someday about Oates.

Examiner columnist Thom Loverro is the co-host of "The Sports Fix" from noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on ESPN980 and espn980.com. Contact him at tloverro@washingtonexaminer.com.

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Thom Loverro

Sports columnist
The Washington Examiner