They’ve won consecutive division titles. They’ll be playing in front of full houses at home all season. They’ve won several individual accolades, and they’re coming off the best season in franchise history. The only thing remaining on the Washington Capitals’ “to-do” list is win the Stanley Cup.
Starting Sunday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, the Caps get down to the business of pursuing hockey’s coveted chalice.
This year’s Caps can become the first team in franchise history to win three consecutive titles but that distinction does not interest them in the least. Division titles are door prizes; six of them are awarded every year. Hockey players play the game for one reason, to win the Stanley Cup. And this year’s model of the Washington Capitals is expected to be among a half dozen or so teams that might be good enough to win it.
“That’s the goal, every year but especially this year,” says veteran goaltender Jose Theodore. “With the team we have, last year we lost in seven [games] against the Stanley Cup winners. We’re right there but this year obviously our goal is to be playing for the Stanley Cup.”
The first order of business will be to lop the camp roster of 71 players down to the 20-23 able-bodied men who will head to Boston for the Oct. 1 season opener with the Bruins. Those 71 players will be divided into three groups that will take the ice at 10 a.m., 11:45 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. on Sunday.
Beginning on Monday, the Caps will hold three days of intrasquad scrimmages to determine the winner of the annual Duchesne Cup, awarded to the camp champs in honor of the late Gaetan Duchense, an eighth-round draft choice who made the Caps roster as a teenager in the early 1980s and went on to play more than 1,000 games in the NHL.
Twenty players will be chosen for Thursday’s short flight to Buffalo for the Caps’ preseason opener that night, the first of six exhibition contests.
The Caps are still a team that is reliant on a nucleus of young stars Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin. While Ovechkin and Green have already been inked to long-term deals, Backstrom and Semin are both entering the final years of their current deals.
Last season, the Caps won only one game in which one of those four players did not find the back of the net.
“I think we’re all experienced now,” says Green. “We’re old enough. With a few additions this year, I think we’re ready.”
To a man, the Caps are seeking more that division titles and personal accolades this season.
“Everybody has to do better stuff because we didn’t win,” says Ovechkin. “I want to win. We are here to win.”
Semin is only 25 years old, but he is the oldest of the “Young Guns.” From the standpoint of continuous time as a member of the Capitals’ organization, he has been with the team the longest, edging out center Boyd Gordon by a few minutes. Both were first-round choices (Semin 13th overall and Gordon 17th) in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. Semin made it clear that he wants to win the Cup, and he wants to win it here in Washington with these players he has played alongside for the last several seasons.
“I don’t even know what to say,” says Semin, speaking through translator Dmitry Chesnokov. “I don’t even know how to explain it. We just all want to win the Cup, especially with this team. I like this team. I want to stay here and I want to win the Cup with this team.”
The Caps are young but as Ponce de Leon would tell you, no one stays young forever.
“A lot of times what happens with teams – and I don’t think we’re in that boat – is that they get to a certain point and they don’t make it,” says coach Bruce Boudreau. “They don’t win the whole thing. And then they fall back into the middle of the pack and they have to rebuild it. I think we’re still on the upswing. We’re going to push and push them to not be great and not complacent. That’s my goal is to push them from day one of camp to be the best conditioned, hardest working team in the league.”
Newcomer Mike Knuble is a 37-year-old veteran with a Stanley Cup ring – the only one in the Caps’ locker room – to his credit. After spending the last four seasons just up the highway with the Philadelphia Flyers, Knuble is instantly the elder statesman on the Capitals.
“I like the energy in the room,” observes Knuble. “There is a lot of confidence. Hopefully we’re ready to build on what they did last spring.”
General manager George McPhee has been on the job in the District for over a decade, presiding over lean and large times both on and off the ice. He and his hockey operations staff have diligently assembled this group over the last several years and are always seeking the tweaks to the roster that will put the team over the top.
“Ultimately, we want to win the Stanley Cup to make it a great experience,” declares McPhee. “We’ve had a couple of very good years but we want to continue to improve and hope that the Stanley Cup is the next thing on the horizon.”
As recently as three autumns ago, the goal in D.C. was merely to be competitive. Now, the goal is to compete for the Cup.
Notes: Right wing Eric Fehr (shoulder) and defenseman Grant McNeill (knee) may not be on the ice when camp opens on Sunday. Defenseman Josh Godfrey suffered a hip flexor injury in Friday’s 7-3 loss to Philadelphia in the annual Caps-Flyers rookie game on Friday. Godfrey is day-to-day.