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Caps begin long road back to playoff atonement

by Dan Rosen
After a 2009-10 regular season that can only be termed a complete and total success, it's been an offseason of wondering how in the world things went so far south in the playoffs for the Washington Capitals.

The Presidents' Trophy winners with 121 points, eight more than its closest competitor, had a 3-1 lead on Montreal in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals with Game 5 in its own barn. The Capitals are still waiting for their next win after losing three straight and the series to the Habs.

"When you get up on a team 3-1 in a series you've got to win it, because you don't have many opportunities," Caps GM George McPhee told the NHL Network. "We've explained to the players that you can't let opportunities go. We had a great opportunity this year with a great season, got up 3-1 in a series and blew it. You can't do that very often."

The Capitals would have to buck their own trend of struggling in the first round to stop it from happening again. Washington has won the Southeast Division three years in a row, but has only won one playoff round, and had to come back from a 3-1 deficit to do it.

Before attempting to tackle the playoff challenge, the Caps have to get there. That should not be a problem.

The Southeast Division is better this season with the re-worked rosters in Tampa Bay and Atlanta, but Washington is still the overwhelming favorite to win the division and be one of the higher, if not again the highest, seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

That's when it gets interesting for Alex Ovechkin and Co.

Jose Theodore was not re-signed because the Capitals feel their young goalies are ready for the challenge. They will have the youngest tandem in the League with 22-year-old Europeans Semyon Varlamov (Russia) and Michal Neuvirth (Czech Republic) battling to be the No. 1.

Centers Brendan Morrison and Eric Belanger were not re-signed and remain unrestricted free agents.

Washington also chose not to re-sign defensemen Shaone Morrisonn (Buffalo) and Joe Corvo (Carolina) because John Carlson and Karl Alzner are ready to make the full time move to D.C. and could team up as a blue-line pair just as they did in the AHL last season.

Carlson, 20, showed his potential last season by playing in 22 regular-season games and all seven playoff games. Alzner, 21, has been biding his time while shuttling back and forth between Hershey the last two seasons.

Scott Walker, Quintin Laing, Alexandre Giroux and Chris Bourque won't be back, either.

The only player expected to make the final roster that wasn't in the organization last season is D.J. King. He was acquired in the trade this summer that sent prospect Stefan Della Rovere to St. Louis.

King, 26, an enforcer, will assume a small role with the Capitals, but he will likely play in games against teams that also dress an enforcer, such as the Rangers with Derek Boogaard and the Devils with Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond. He had 9 points and 185 penalty minutes in 101 games in four seasons with the Blues.

The rest of the Capitals' newcomers are all rookies or expected first-year full-timers, including Marcus Johansson, Carlson, Alzner and Neuvirth.

Washington could have its No. 2 center position solved with the ascension of Johansson, the No. 24 pick in the 2009 Entry Draft who is coming over from Sweden for his first season in North America. However, returning forward Tomas Fleischmann, who played center for a good portion of last season, was brought back on a one-year contract and could start the season as the No. 2 center to take some of the pressure off Johansson.

That is, of course, if Fleischmann is not traded before the season starts. There is a chance that could happen as rumors have been circulating. There are also rumors that Belanger will be re-signed and he, too, could compete for the No. 2 center spot.

The Caps are a touch younger, and the additions of Johansson, Carlson, Alzner and Neuvirth shows how well they have drafted in recent years. Washington's relative youth should not dampen its expectations.

With Ovechkin leading the way, likely on the left side of Backstrom and Mike Knuble again, Washington should be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, and it should be leading the charge to gain the top seed in the playoffs for the third straight season.

Critics want to question the Caps' goaltending, but Varlamov has played one full season and two postseasons, and he hasn't been the reason they've stumbled in their quest for the Stanley Cup. A lack of disciplined defense and strength on the back end has proven costly.

There's still a chance Washington signs another defenseman to solidify the blue line, which in turn could solve what seems to be a yearly springtime question.

Either way the Capitals return mostly intact the team that won the Presidents' Trophy last season. And in the process, they could be developing some more star power in net and up front.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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