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Caps hope subtle improvements impact long run

by Dave Lozo
NEW YORK -- It would be easy for the cynical fan to look at the hot start by the Washington Capitals and ask rhetorically, "Why should I trust you this time?"

Just last season, the Caps looked like world beaters during the regular season, cruising to 121 points and a Presidents' Trophy. The playoffs were a different story, as the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens vanquished the Caps in seven games.

Two seasons ago, the story was very similar. After locking up the Eastern Conference's second seed, the Caps were sent packing by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. It's not a crime to lose to the eventual Stanley Cup champions, but it was a disappointment nonetheless.

With 20 points in 14 games this season, the Caps have matched their start from a season ago. Just about all of the familiar faces have returned too, including Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green.

So when the cynical fan wants to know why things will be different this time around, do the Capitals see it as a fair question?

"I do," Capitals forward Mike Knuble said. "I think that's been part of the whole thing since the end of last season. We were going to have to wait 50 weeks to get back to where we were. You can already see. Yeah, we're doing well and we're at the top of our conference and it's not like people are singing to the rafters about us and saying look at this team, they're for real.

"It's up to us come playoff time to exorcise the demons."

So why will things be different this time around?

"Last year there was a business-like attitude too, but it just seems to be a lot more wait-and-see," Knuble said. "The good thing is we're seeing improvements statistically. Our goals-against are down (from 44 to 34) and our penalty-killing is way up (from 25th to 8th). There is some statistical improvement going on. These things were talked about in the summer by the staff and were brought to the players come training-camp time, and I think we've been better about that stuff."

If there's one new face who can make an impact, it might be 22-year-old goaltender Michael Neuvirth. So far, he's making the most of an opportunity that came about thanks partly to a lingering groin injury to the expected starter, Semyon Varlamov. Neuvirth is 8-3-0 in 13 appearances with a 2.41 goals-against average and .914 save percentage.

Varlamov looked to be the incumbent after starting the final five games of last season's first-round loss to the Canadiens. He also came on in relief of Jose Theodore in Game 2 and picked up the victory. Varlamov won three straight to give the Caps a 3-1 series lead, but he allowed 7 goals on 65 shots over the final three games of the series, all losses.

It's not as though goaltending alone led to the demise of the Caps last season, but if there was one glaring spot that could make a difference this season, it's between the pipes.

"He's just been outstanding," Capitals defenseman Mike Green said. "As a defenseman playing in front of him, the pucks are covered up. His composure is incredible, especially at such a young age."

The Caps atop the Eastern Conference is something many people take for granted the last few years, but without Neuvirth, that might not be the case right now.

"You never know because Varly's injured and (Neuvirth's) played a little bit, but he doesn't have a whole lot of experience," Green said. "I'm very proud of him because he's a great goaltender. For him to step into this League and play as well as he has has been fantastic."

The playoffs are still five months away, but Neuvirth should give Caps fans hope that things will be different this time around. He backstopped the Capitals' AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, to the past two Calder Cup championships before getting his chance to stick with the big club this season.

Defenseman John Carlson was part of Hershey's championship run last season and said Neuvirth hasn't changed one bit now that he's playing in the NHL.

"I think that's why he's done so well," Carlson said. "He stays calm and that's huge for a goalie, to not get rattled, to not get phased by little things. You can't say enough about him."

With a new goaltender, a stronger commitment to defense and improved penalty killing, the Caps are exhibiting all the signs of a hungry team that wants to correct last season's mistakes. But Knuble says it will come down to the Caps' mental approach to the game and carrying that focus all season.

"There's not going to be a game where we're going to be dramatically outplayed or outshot," Knuble said. "If we show up, we can play with anybody. It just comes down to the mental commitment of the guys on that night. 'Do you want to play defense tonight?' So far we have been.

"We have defensive guys who get a lot of attention and some role players who don't. They take a lot of pride in faceoffs and killing penalties and being an even or a plus every night and not being a drag on everything.

"I think the difference for us is being mentally committed."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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