There have been times in the past two seasons when the Washington Capitals looked like just another pretty good hockey team, not the unique bunch that could light up opposing goaltenders with skill and clinical precision in the years before that.
Defense - WSH
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 4 | PTS: 7
SOG: 64 | +/-: 5
Washington’s system has changed on a couple of occasions, and a pair of coaches tried to shift the philosophy away from those halcyon days of run-and-gun hockey. But one of the biggest reasons the Capitals haven’t been what they once were offensively has been the absence and/or diminished effectiveness of defenseman Mike Green.
In a two-season span from 2008-10, Green had 50 goals and 149 points. He was the first NHL defenseman with at least 18 goals and 70 points in back-to-back seasons since Boston Bruins star Ray Bourque in 1992-93 and 1993-94.
The past two seasons have been filled with frustration and disappointment -- concussions, an ankle injury, and a lingering groin injury have limited Green to 82 regular-season games, and a shoulder injury knocked him out of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"It's unfortunate that the last couple of years I've suffered from injuries, but I believe I'm over them -- I think I've got them all out of my system," Green told reporters when he signed a new three-year contract last month. "I think [the Capitals] are happy that I'm committed to the hockey team and doing the things I have to do to be the best I can."
Alex Ovechkin was one of the game’s best players, and Nicklas Backstrom was becoming an elite center, but what helped set Washington apart was Green putting up offensive numbers that hadn’t been seen since before the neutral zone trap rose to prominence.
He could carry the puck from end to end, or he could jump up and display the offensive acumen of a top-line forward. Green would perform better the more minutes he played, and he became the most dynamic offensive defenseman in hockey.
"I don't think I have to prove anything. I think that personally for my own mental state that I get back to that and almost prove to myself that I can do it. I know I'm able to do it; it's just a matter of me going out and doing it." -- Capitals D Mike Green
That title is elsewhere now. Green has 31 points in the past two seasons and he didn’t impart his will onto to games last season after returning from the injuries the way he had in the past.
Green has had an offseason to regroup, mentally and physically. The Capitals weren’t afraid to show their faith in his ability to regain his Norris Trophy-nominee form, agreeing to a contract that will pay the 26-year-old an average of almost $6.1 million for the next three seasons.
Without a return to form by Green, the Capitals probably are about what they were last year -- good enough to make the playoffs, and win a round if they get enough breaks. Should Green find some luck with his health and regain his ability to control games with his offensive presence, well, the Capitals could be back among the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
"I don't think I have to prove anything," Green said. "I think that personally for my own mental state that I get back to that and almost prove to myself that I can do it. I know I'm able to do it; it's just a matter of me going out and doing it."