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Caps want regular season excellence, playoff success

by Brian Hunter
As far as regular seasons go, the Washington Capitals hope this one turns out just like the past three.

For all the postseason disappointment the Capitals have suffered in recent memory, they've also been the class of the Southeast Division for three years running. That includes winning the Presidents' Trophy last season with a 54-15-13 record, the 121 points easily the most in franchise history.

Washington ended up being the only team in the Southeast to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, finishing a whopping 38 points in front of second-place Atlanta. While it's probable that gap will be closed this season, with a number of their competitors improving significantly over the summer, the Capitals remain, unquestionably, the team to beat.

Unfortunately for all their fans in the D.C. area and beyond, come the playoffs that's exactly what has happened.

The Capitals were bounced by the Flyers in a Game 7 overtime situation in 2008. After rallying from a 3-1 deficit in the opening round to get past the Rangers the following year, they dropped a hard-fought seven-game series against the rival Penguins. But the worst heartache was yet to come.

Washington had finished the 2009-10 season 33 points in front of its first-round opponent, Montreal, and the Capitals blitzed their way to a 3-1 lead in the series. It was hard for anyone to fathom how the Canadiens might come back, but a combination of goaltending heroics by Jaroslav Halak and untimely slumps by several of the Caps' top offensive players led to three consecutive wins by the Habs and a devastating crash-and-burn for Washington's Stanley Cup hopes.

As this season progresses, no matter how far ahead in the standings the Capitals might be, the question of what they must do to get over the postseason hump will linger. For now, GM George McPhee has resisted the urge to make drastic changes with the roster, restraint with which coach Bruce Boudreau wholeheartedly agrees.

"We have the same core that we've had," he told during the summer. "There were eight points between us and the second-place team (San Jose). We're a good team. You don't want to blow up a good team."

If you've read this far in the article, then chances are you've heard of this Alex Ovechkin guy. “The Great Eight” is coming off his fourth 50-goal season in his young five-year career, and if he hadn't missed 10 games due to injury and suspension it's a pretty safe he bet he would have wrested the Rocket Richard Trophy away from rival Sidney Crosby and second-year standout Steven Stamkos, who shared the NHL lead with 51 goals.

Ovechkin (50-59-109) is the undisputed star around town, but he was hardly the only one lighting up the scoreboard at the Verizon Center. His center, Nicklas Backstrom (33-68-101), took the next step from being merely a playmaker and is developing into a feared goal-scorer in his own right. Alexander Semin (40-44-84) was also better than a point-per-game player despite missing nine games himself.

A total of seven Washington forwards scored at least 20 goals last season, meaning that even on the rare occasions when an opponent was able to shut down the Ovechkin line, chances were they still got burned elsewhere.

Brooks Laich (25-34-59) was deadly in front of the net, particularly on the power play where his 12 goals were second on the team only to Ovechkin. Mike Knuble (29-24-53) barely missed joining Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom as members of the 30-goal club. Tomas Fleischmann (23-28-51) got off to a torrid start and was particularly effective during an early stretch when Ovechkin was out of the lineup. Eric Fehr (21-18-39) rarely played more than 10-12 minutes per game, but made the most of the ice time he did see.

While there would seem to be little space on the top two lines for a young player to crack, rookie center Marcus Johansson will be trying to do just that. The team's first-round pick in 2009 has come over from Sweden and the early hype is that he could slot in as their No. 2 center behind Backstrom.

Most of the faces up front will remain familiar ones, however. Jason Chimera (15-19-34), Matt Bradley (10-14-24), David Steckel (5-11-16) and Boyd Gordon (4-6-10) all return. D.J. King was acquired in a trade with St. Louis to provide grit. They will be challenged for playing time by youngsters including Mathieu Perreault, Keith Aucoin and Jay Beagle, all of whom got looks with the big club last season.

Mike Green (19-57-76 in 75 games) gave the Capitals four players with more points than games played, actually increasing his point total by three from the previous season when he scored a career-best 31 goals. Like many of his teammates, Green is still looking to break through in the postseason, but he's established himself as the backbone of the Washington defense.

Jeff Schultz (3-20-23) led the League with a plus-50 rating and veterans Tom Poti (4-20-24), John Erskine (1-5-6) and Tyler Sloan (2-4-6) also return to anchor a blue line that figures to get much younger this season as some fresh blood is integrated in the form of first-round picks Karl Alzner and John Carlson. Both players have some prior experience with the Capitals, but will now be looked at to hold down full-time jobs.

Alzner, the fifth selection in the 2007 Entry Draft, has played in 51 NHL regular-season games and one playoff game over the past two seasons. Carlson, who was taken No. 27 a year later, made a splash late last season, playing in 22 regular-season games and all seven playoff games against the Canadiens. He scored with 1:21 remaining in Game 2 to force overtime, a game in which the Capitals would claim a 6-5 victory.

While the Capitals had been gradually building toward a youth movement in goal, easing Semyon Varlamov into the fold over the past two seasons, there's no denying they are committed to the kids now that veteran Jose Theodore was allowed to walk as a free agent.

The netminding duties this season figure to be split between Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, both of whom enter the season at 22 years of age.

Varlamov, a first-round pick in 2006, inherited the starting job from Theodore during each of the last two postseasons, and his 2.49 goals-against average and .915 save percentage suggest he was hardly the main culprit in the Capitals' early exits. Varlamov is also 19-4-7 in 32 career regular-season games.

Neuvirth, taken in the second round the same draft year as Varlamov, has spent more time in the AHL over the past few seasons. That was a good thing for the Hershey Bears, who won back-to-back Calder Cups with Neuvirth in goal and Alzner and Carlson forming the nucleus on defense. Neuvirth also made 16 starts for Washington last season, going 9-4-0 with a 2.75 GAA and .914 save percentage. All indications are he's ready to go.

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