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How high can the Capitals go?

Wednesday, 09.03.2008 / 9:00 AM / Season Preview

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

After crafting the second-highest turnaround in the League last season, what could the Washington Capitals possibly do for an encore in 2008-09?

Last season's most admired glass-cruncher, Alex Ovechkin, has the answer -- "Win the Stanley Cup."

That's the response Washington fans, coaches and managers need to hear from who many feel is the League's most effervescent performer. In fact, Ovechkin has reiterated time and again that he would gladly exchange the trophies he won in 2007-08 -- Hart, Maurice Richard, Lester B. Pearson and Art Ross -- for a Stanley Cup.

Behind Ovechkin's monstrous season, the Caps made a 24-point turnaround last season that included their first Division title in six seasons and first trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in four. Jim Van Stone, the Capitals' vice president of ticket sales, has also confirmed that 3,800 new full season ticket plans have been sold since late February and the renewal rate for existing season ticket holders is 93 percent, the highest since Ted Leonsis purchased the team in 1999.

There's no reason to believe the club can't do it again, since just three players from last year's team -- goalies Cristobal Huet and Olaf Kolzig and wing Matt Cooke -- have since departed. Washington General Manager George McPhee made up for the losses with the acquisition of former Vezina and Hart Trophy-winner Jose Theodore and Carolina wing Keith Aucoin.

McPhee, a big proponent of developing and maintaining home-grown talent, also re-signed defensemen Mike Green and Shaone Morrisonn and forwards Sergei Fedorov, Brooks Laich, David Steckel, Matt Bradley, Eric Fehr and Boyd Gordon.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS
2007-08 SEASON STATS

Category Rank (Conference)
2007-08 Points 94
(3rd east/12th NHL)
Change from 2006-07 +24
Home Points 49
(6th east/13th NHL)
Away Points 45
(7th east/11th NHL)
McPhee also locked up coach Bruce Boudreau, winner of the Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the Year, to a multi-year extension at season's end. Amazingly, Boudreau won the award despite coaching only 61 games, the second fewest by any Adams-winning coach. After being named coach on an interim basis Nov. 22, Boudreau led the Caps to a 37-17-7 record and concluded the regular season on a seven-game winning streak to capture the Southeast Division. The Caps will now look to rebound after being eliminated by the Flyers, tops in the League with a 39-point turnaround last season, in the quarterfinal-round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Goalies

Following the departure of Huet to the Chicago Blackhawks and Kolzig to Division rival Tampa Bay, McPhee signed the 31-year-old Theodore to a two-year deal on the first day of free agency. Theodore, an 11-year veteran, spent the last two-plus seasons with the Colorado Avalanche. He started 20 of the Avalanche's final 21 games, helping the club earn a Stanley Cup playoff berth as the sixth seed. He finished the season 28-21-3 with three shutouts, a 2.24 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in 2007-08. He was also 6-1 in shootouts and is 9-2 lifetime.

Brent Johnson, the team's 31-year-old backup, enters his eighth season and fourth with the Capitals. He finished 7-8-2 last season with a 2.67 GAA with a .908 save percentage.

Daren Machesney, drafted by the Capitals in the fifth round in 2005, went 22-9-3 with a 2.55 GAA and .916 save percentage in 38 appearances with Washington's American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears, last season. The Capitals also have a pair of 20-year-old, 2006 draft picks who could emerge this winter in Russian Simeon Varlamov and Czech Michal Neuvirth. Both players, who each signed three-year entry-level contracts last year, are expected to turn pro and play in North America in 2008-09.

Defense

There's no question the re-signing of 22-year-old Mike Green to a four-year deal July 1 was critical to the stability of the back end. In 2006-07, the Capitals allowed 3.35 goals per game (fifth-worst in the NHL) but made an improvement, albeit a minor one, after yielding 2.77 goals a game.

Washington will return its top-seven defensemen from last year's group, including cornerstone Green, who led all NHL blueliners with 18 goals while ranking seventh with 56 points in his second full season in the League. He was one of four Capitals to play in every game and lead the team in ice time (23:38 per game). The Capitals were 11-4-0 when Green scored a goal and 28-7-2 when he recorded a point. He also finished seventh in voting for the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman.

Another key in the resurgence along the blue line was the play of youngsters Morrisonn and Milan Jurcina, two former Boston Bruins prospects reunited last season when the Caps acquired Jurcina from the Bruins for a draft pick.

Tom Poti (29 points, 71 games), Jeff Schultz (18 points) and Brian Pothier will also be back in the mix for Boudreau. There's also a strong possibility that prospect Karl Alzner, who was a member of Canada's gold-medal winning team at the '07 World Junior Championships and captained gold-medal winning Team Canada in the 2008 WJC, will earn considerable time with big club this season.

Forwards

After becoming the first 60-goal scorer in 11 seasons, would it at all be surprising if Ovechkin becomes the first player in 15 to light the lamp 70 times -- a feat that hasn't happened since 1992-93 when Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny tied for the League-lead with 76 goals apiece?

Ovechkin, who signed a nine-year extension in January, certainly lived up to all the hype with a career-high 65 goals and 112 points in 82 games. He also finished with a career-best plus-28 rating while accounting for 27.3 percent of Washington's total offense. In seven playoff games, "Ovie" had four goals and nine points alongside Viktor Kozlov (54 points in 81 games in 2007-08) and either Fedorov or rookie Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom, who finished second to Chicago's Patrick Kane in the voting for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie, registered 55 of his 69 total regular-season points during the final 45 games of the season.

Fedorov (41 points in 68 games) played in 18 games for Washington last year after coming over from Columbus at the trade deadline. He posted two goals and 11 assists with the Caps and scored the game-winner in the final match of the season against Florida on April 5 to help the club garner the Southeast Division title.

Center Michael Nylander (shoulder surgery) and right wing Chris Clark (groin) are expected to return to the lineup following lengthy absences in 2007-08. Clark, who was sidelined for the final 38 games of the regular season, had nine points in 18 games. Prior to missing the remainder of the season with his shoulder injury, Nylander had 26 assists and 37 points in 40 games. It's possible Nylander and Clark could begin the season on the top line with Ovechkin. Backstrom could then center the second unit with Kozlov and Alexander Semin (26 goals, 42 points, 63 games).

Tomas Fleischmann (10 goals, 30 points), Fedorov, Brooks Laich (21 goals, 37 points), Donald Brashear (119 penalty minutes), David Steckel, Boyd Gordon, Quintin Laing, Aucoin and Matt Bradley will likely fill out the third and fourth lines for Boudreau. On Nov. 6, 2007, wing Chris Bourque became the 23rd son of a Hockey Hall of Famer to play in the NHL. The 5-foot-8, 181-pound right wing will likely see more than the four games he received this past season with the Caps.

Three reasons for optimism

* Alex Ovechkin is the face of the Capitals, and one of only a handful of players in the League who has the ability to pique the curiosity of even the most casual hockey fan. The fourth-season performer appears determined to take it to another level this season with the hope of leading the Caps beyond the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 1997-98.

* Coach Boudreau will have a full season behind the bench to work his magic following his Jack Adams Award-winning performance in 2007-08. In addition to allowing his defensemen some offensive freedom, he undoubtedly knows how to get the most from his forwards. Boudreau guided the Caps to 15 wins during the final 19 games of the regular season in 2007-08 en route to the division championship.

"We're a pretty good team,'' he said. "As long as you have No. 8 (Ovechkin) and Nicky (Backstrom) leading the way, you've got young players you can build your team around. I think in the last 20 games of the season the rest of the hockey world and the rest of the people who watch it started to realize that the Washington Capitals are a pretty good hockey team."

* The return of forwards Michael Nylander, 35, and captain Chris Clark, 32, from injury will certainly benefit an already potent offense that had finished eighth in the League with a 2.90 goals per game average. In 2006-07, Nylander had 26 goals, 14 on the power-play, and 83 points in 79 games with the New York Rangers before signing a free-agent contract with Washington in July 2007. When healthy, Clark, acquired in 2005 in a trade with Calgary, also proved to be a valuable asset, recording 30 goals, nine power-play goals, four shorthanded and 54 points in 74 games with the Caps in 2006-07.

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com.

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When I first became captain here, Monsieur Beliveau came to me and said, 'You're going to be fine. You don't have to change, you got selected because of who you are.'

— Saku Koivu on Thursday, recalling what he was told by the late Jean Beliveau when he was named Canadiens captain in 1999
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