When general manager George McPhee added Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik and Tomas Vokoun in a span of a couple weeks last summer, the Washington Capitals appeared to be one of, if not the best team in the NHL … on paper.
The Capitals had just finished with the most points in the Eastern Conference in back-to-back seasons, and McPhee upgraded the talent on the roster. Combine the additions with the expected progression of young players like John Carlson, Marcus Johansson and Michal Neuvirth, and there were the makings of an obvious Stanley Cup contender in Washington.
After a scorching start to the season, the Capitals’ 2011-12 campaign became a bit of a mess. Coach Bruce Boudreau was fired and replaced with first-time NHL coach Dale Hunter. The results did not improve as Hunter’s transition was handicapped by a concussion for top center Nicklas Backstrom and multiple injuries for top defenseman Mike Green.
There were players questioning the coach through the media. There were almost two different teams -- the one that played at Verizon Center and the one that struggled mightily on the road. In the end, the Capitals needed 81 games to clinch a playoff spot, but they are back in the postseason for the fifth consecutive year. They can even still claim the Southeast Division title Saturday with a win and a regulation loss by the Florida Panthers.
How did the Capitals still manage to make the postseason despite the turmoil and missed expectations? Here are a few reasons why:
1. A great start: Washington raced to a 7-0-0 record and looked like the best team in the League for the first two weeks of the season. Green was hurt during the seventh win, and the team really hasn’t been the same since. The Capitals lost 10 of the next 15 games before Boudreau was fired, and there hasn’t been a lot of consistent winning since -- they’ve won 34 of 74 since the opening streak.
2. Home cooking: The Capitals went 26-11-4 at Verizon Center this season. Only five teams will finish the campaign with more points collected at home. Washington has actually improved away from home during the closing stretch of the season, but the Capitals are still only 15-21-4 on the road with one contest to play.
3. Goaltending depth: Neither Tomas Vokoun nor Michal Neuvirth has had a spectacular season, and both have missed time with injuries. Both had stretches of excellence, though, and with a little help from one of the best No. 3 goaltenders in the League in Braden Holtby, the position was still a strength for the Capitals. Had Vokoun not signed July 2 for the low price of $1.5 million, Washington could have had a serious problem when one of its goalies went down.
4. Karl Alzner became an elite defensive defensemen: Washington boasted an excess of riches with right-handed, offensive-minded defensemen in Green, Carlson and Dennis Wideman. Green and Carlson have had disappointing seasons, as have guys like Hamrlik and Jeff Schultz (though some of that was a playing time issue). The one guy on Washington’s defense corps who exceeded expectations was Alzner. Last season he and Carlson formed the team’s shutdown pairing, but while Carlson has scuffled at times in 2011-12, Alzner has faced some of the toughest competition at even strength in the NHL and been Washington’s best at the position at goal prevention.
5. Half a season from Nicklas Backstrom is better than nothing: Ovechkin is the face of the franchise, but Backstrom proved to be the soul of this team more than ever this season. He was easily the team’s MVP in the first half of the season before an illegal elbow to the head from Rene Bourque shelved Backstrom for three months. The team struggled to score at times without him, and a problem with depth at center that has lingered since Sergei Fedorov left town was exasperated by his absence. Having Backstrom back is the difference between Washington being cannon fodder for someone in the first round and the Capitals being a legitimately dangerous team that could advance.
6. Too much talent: This could probably be No. 1 on this list, but that roster McPhee constructed proved to be too deep and too talented not to make the playoffs -- especially in the East. Ovechkin had a second-straight season below expectations, but a strong March helped push him up the leaderboard in goals scored and helped save the Capitals when they could have collapsed. While Ward and Brouwer didn’t meet production expectations, Jason Chimera had a career year. Carlson and Johansson did not take a step forward as expected, but Alzner did. Green missed a ton of time with injuries, but Wideman had strong offensive numbers and rookie Dmitry Orlov joined the team after the season started and became a fixture in the lineup. Many players did not produce to the level of expectation their salaries suggest, but it was still enough to finish inside the top eight in the East.