Who let the Capitals out?

WASHINGTON -- If there ever was a team that has learned at the School of Hard Knocks in recent years, it's the Washington Capitals.

Denuded of talent, forgotten by fans, left to the devices of perpetually upbeat rookie coach Glen Hanlon and a bunch of youngsters he once described as a pack of carefree puppies that sometimes run into traffic and get run over, the Caps seemed destined to exist in the shadowy fringes of the NHL well into the next decade.

But here's a funny thing.

Those puppies have evolved into a sometime nasty pack of mongrels that have very quietly but quite suddenly learned how to play this game. Led by top mongrel Alexander Ovechkin, whose rambunctious, take-no-prisoners, head-on style of play embodies the team's overall grittiness, the Capitals find themselves occupying the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference as the first third of the season comes to an end.

Last season, other teams used to compliment the Capitals because they were so difficult to play against. You'll remember that they ended the Atlanta Thrashers' postseason hopes in Game 81. But that is damning with faint praise, at its best. You're not really good enough to beat us consistently, the compliments suggested, but you did scare us and maybe roughed us up a bit. Lots of writers suggested they'd have liked to make Hanlon a nominee for Coach of the Year but, well, the Caps simply weren't good enough.

This year, the some of the same comments are being made. The Capitals might be the NHL's most difficult team to play against because of their pack dog mentality. But somewhere along the way, they've learned how to finish the job, how to accumulate points, how to put opponents away and how to stop losing streaks from becoming black pits of despair.

Some of it is due to the continued evolution of defending Rookie of the Year Ovechkin, who continues to amaze with 35 points in 29 games, along with the arrival of erstwhile Russian star Alexander Semin, who has shouldered some of the scoring load.

But the Capitals are climbing the ladder as a team in a way that few others are.

While the lockout was debilitating for some franchises and confusing for others, the Capitals took advantage of the situation and built from within, which is just as well given that owner Ted Leonsis isn't about to spend much money after the Jaromir Jagr fiasco.

Hanlon points to center Brian Sutherby, who has played with a significant portion of the team at a number of different levels in the past four or five years.

"Brian Sutherby has been pretty much the captain of a group of younger players. They've established that, and it's a really neat relationship. These guys have been together in their summer camps and they've just been so close and so tight," Hanlon said.

Some of those players were part of the rebuilding phase last season – which some players refer to as the first half of a 164-game, two-year season – and others were with an AHL championship team in Hershey last season.

"There was so much that was written that we were going to finish in last place and the word 'rebuilding' was in almost every article [at the start of last season]. We wanted to try and find a way to find a purpose for the first 82 games," Hanlon said, explaining the reasoning behind the two-year cycle of development. The first season was about putting the system into place, and this season was to have focused on winning.

"And now we've beefed that up a bit."

The coach says there is a direct line to be drawn from the long-standing relationships many of these players have and their current success.

"This isn't a democracy here. We make the decisions. But if they're going to have a team party, it's not because the coach says, 'OK, here's your one day I'm going to organize this, you're going bowling and you're going to have fun,' " Hanlon said. "We give them lots of days to be close. They all live close by, most of them are young. And they have a really good time."

Certainly the players have bought into the concept of togetherness as a tonic for success.

The more time you spend together, Sutherby said, the more comfortable players get and the easier it is to perform, to get better and to demand that everyone gets better too.

The Caps' dressing room, just in case you wanted to know, isn't for the faint of heart. No one is immune from a good verbal shot about hairstyle, wardrobe or music selection; no one is immune from the odd practical joke.

"That comes from having a young kid like Ovie in the room," Sutherby said. "When your young superstar doesn't act like he's any better than anyone else in the locker room, that's incredible. That translates through the whole locker room."

Added veteran forward Ben Clymer, "If you can't take a good ribbing every day, you're going to have a hard time around here. It's a fun place to come every day."

Clymer was on hand for the metamorphosis of the Tampa Bay Lightning from league doormat to Stanley Cup champions before signing in Washington after the lockout. He thinks the Caps are ahead of the Bolts' timetable.

Last season the Caps were 26th on the power play and 28th on the penalty kill. This season, the mongrels are a wholly respectable 17th at killing penalties and 17th on the power play.

"That team plays hard. They play tough," said one Eastern Conference pro scout who sees the Caps play regularly. "They are a tough team to play against."

A recent portion of the schedule underlines the strides taken by the Caps.

From Nov. 13 to 23, the Caps were winless in six games (0-4-2). They then had to face Tampa Bay, Dallas, Buffalo, Ottawa, Anaheim and Philadelphia. In the past that stretch might have seen the Caps' winless streak extend to 10 or 11 games and doom their season.

Instead, Washington won four in a row, got blown out by Anaheim and then rebounded to beat Philadelphia Saturday night to move into 8th place.

The team has also showed surprising resiliency, securing points in nine of 19 games in which it has trailed.

"We would never have had those last year. We didn't have the belief," Clymer said.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.