2010-11 NHL season preview: Washington Capitals

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for ovechkinshoots.jpgLast season: (54-15-13, 121 points, 1st in Southeast Division, 1st in Eastern Conference) Capitals fans will cringe at this statement, but if one more season goes like the 2009-10 campaign did, those ‘San Jose Sharks East’ jokes will have a lot more validity. The team put together an astounding regular season, finishing nine points higher than the top-seeded Sharks in the West and 18 points higher than the Devils, the East’s second seed. Yet all that chest puffing amounted to despair in the playoffs as Montreal shocked Washington despite being down 3-1 in the series. The victim of bad luck since they vastly out-shot the Canadiens most of that series, but it’s hard to defend a team that is 1-3 in Game 7s during the Alex Ovechkin years … at home.

Head coach: People forget that the Capitals weren’t even a playoff team until Bruce Boudreau took the reins. Some bristle at the team’s middling interest in defense, but it makes them the NHL’s answer to the ‘seven seconds or less’ Phoenix Suns. Boudreau handles the team like Ovechkin handles his beloved sports cars: fast, furious and with more than a hint of recklessness. While the Capitals fans’ reactions on Twitter might make such an event intolerable, I’d love to see Boudreau stick to his guns and win a Cup by playing with a devil-may-care attitude. He might need to soon, because every season the team disappoints in the playoffs, the calls for his head grow louder.

Key departures: G Jose Theodore, F Eric Belanger, F Brendan Morrison, F Scott Walker, D Joe Corvo, D Milan Jurcina, D Shaone Morrisonn. The Capitals are betting big that two cheap, young goalies will do the job, so they let Theodore walk. The Belanger departure was like a bad breakup, with e-mails published and feelings hurt. Morrison and Morrisonn are also both gone along with the much-criticized Corvo and some other filler players. Washington could be a serious player during the trade deadline since they have a bunch of cap space after consistently opting to promote prospects instead of paying mediocre veterans.

Key arrivals: F D.J. King, G Dany Sabourin. OK, this category is a little deceptive since you could easily call goalie Michal Neuvirth, defensemen Karl Alzner and John Carlson and other Capitals prospects-turned-professionals ‘new arrivals’ to the pro squad. If the young squad falters, people will critique GM George McPhee for being inactive during the summer free agency frenzy, though.

mikegreeninasuit.jpgUnder pressure: While the team is rolling the dice on Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov in net, Mike Green might be under the greatest amount of pressure (even if the spotlight is always on Ovechkin). Despite putting up the offensive numbers of a first-line forward, Green receives criticism for his defensive lapses (and the occasional regrettable fashion choice). He actually receives a little too much abuse, but I can see why people have a beef that he almost seems destined to win a Norris Trophy. The Capitals lack a true shutdown player on the blue line, so Green gets too many of those minutes. If they lose again, he’ll be one of the top scapegoats, whether it’s fair or not.

Protecting the house: Look for the more NHL-experienced Varlamov to be the ‘1A’ in this goalie rotation. The Russian played nicely during the ’09 playoffs, helping the team come back from a hole they dug for themselves against the New York Rangers before succumbing in an awful Game 7 shellacking against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Both Varlamov and young backup/1B Neuvirth will experience something of a Grant Fuhr effect, as their numbers will be undermined by the wide-open style their team deploys. Yet, much like Fuhr during the 80s Edmonton Oilers’ dynasty days, they should expect the kind of goal support that make wins easy to come by.

The much-lampooned Green leads a flawed, but underrated, group of defensemen that could use a little more grit and veteran experience. Jeff Schultz is probably the ‘unsung hero’ of the group while Tom Poti is decent if a bit overpaid. This group could be a lot better than people expect — or a serious handicap for a contending team — depending on how Alzner and Carlson fare in their first full year of NHL action.

Top line we’d like to see: Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Mike Knuble. Although Alex Semin is a dangerous scorer, I think his skills are a little redundant when he’s out there with Ovechkin. By putting this trio out there, you have the best sniper in the game (Ovechkin), one of the top five passers (Backstrom) and a guy who will get to the front of the net and is often the missing and far-too-easily-forgotten ingredient on great lines (Knuble). This combination is more playoff-proven than the line with Semin instead of Knuble, too.

Oh captain, my captain: Sometimes, you just have to make the obvious choice, and Ovechkin is the ‘face’ of the franchise. The team is built around his all-world/generation/century skills, so putting the ‘C’ on his sweater just makes sense. He might not be a rah-rah type leader when he isn’t jumping into the glass after scoring a goal, but he’s their obvious leader.

Street fighting man: Since letting Donald Brashear go two summers ago, the team hasn’t really had a suitable enforcer. And, really, why bother slowing down that offense for a dancing grizzly bear? Matt Bradley was the team leader in fights last season with just five, according to HockeyFights.com. Still, with truculence-minded GMs installed in Florida and Atlanta this summer, they might need to let D.J. King suit up every now and then.

varlamovglovesit.jpgBest-case scenario: The Capitals silence their critics with a playoff run that’s even more impressive than their typically ridiculous regular-season production. After blowing through Montreal in a first-round grudge match, Washington dispatches two of their biggest nemeses (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) before dispatching the best of the West. Ovechkin wins a Hart Trophy and a Conn Smythe, their goalies play great hockey and Mike Green wins his first Norris Trophy, leading their bend-but-don’t-break defense.

Worst-case scenario: Not only do the Capitals fall apart in the first round of the playoffs, losing another Game 7 at home, but they do so as the fourth seed as an upstart club steals the division title away. Ovechkin’s physical style starts to take its toll as he misses a significant chunk of the season with injuries, Backstrom relaxes a little now that he has a big deal, Semin and Green disappear during the playoffs and the young goalies falter under the pressure. Boudreau receives a pink slip and McPhee coaxes Jacques Lemaire out of retirement to turn the Capitals into a trapping hockey team.

Keeping it real: The Capitals really could have used a genuine second-line center, but if their young players can play to their potential, they should still run away with the Southeast Division and probably take the top seed in the East again. It’s reasonable to wonder if Washington will ever win during the playoffs — a time in which they can no longer feast on ‘easy’ goals — but this team certainly will give defenses plenty to worry about. A Cup victory is certainly reasonable for this group.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Caps are a 5. If their goalies falter, the Caps could bring in a veteran goalie (maybe Tomas Vokoun if the Panthers can stomach the idea of him playing for a division ‘rival’?) with all that excess cap space. People forget that every great champion takes its lumps before they hit pay dirt. The Penguins lost to the Red Wings in the Cup finals while the Blackhawks fell to Detroit as well before claiming their championships. Only the most flippant observer would say they don’t have a great chance at a Cup victory.

Rangers recall Jensen from AHL

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 04: Casey Cizikas #53 of the New York Islanders checsk Nicklas Jensen #39 of the New York Rangers during the first period at the Barclays Center on October 4, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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In the wake of injuries to Rick Nash (groin) and Matt Puempel (concussion), the New York Rangers have recalled winger Nicklas Jensen from AHL Hartford.

Jensen, 23, has yet to play a regular-season game for the Rangers since coming to the organization in a trade with Vancouver. The former first-round draft pick has eight goals and seven assists in 21 games for the Wolf Pack this season.

The Rangers’ next game is Thursday in Winnipeg. They’re expected to have Michael Grabner back by then, after he traveled to Austria for his grandmother’s funeral and missed last night’s loss to the Islanders.

     Read more: Jensen feeling good about his game

It remains to be seen if Jensen will be in the lineup tomorrow. But with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich also out injured, this may be an opportunity for Jensen to show he can score in the NHL.

The 29th overall pick in 2011, Jensen played 24 games for the Canucks but managed just three goals and three assists before he was traded last season for Emerson Etem.

Head coach Alain Vigneault said last night that he’d know more today about Nash’s status.

The Rangers also play Friday in Chicago.

Related: Despite winning record, Rangers ‘very aware’ they must be better

Fare thee well, John Scott

Pacific Division forward John Scott (28) is lifted up by teammates Mark Giordano (5), of the Calgary Flames, Joe Pavelski (8), and Brent Burns (88), of the San Jose Sharks after they defeated the Atlantic Division team 1-0 at an NHL hockey All-Star championship game, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. The Pacific Division won 1-0. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
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For John Scott, the ride is officially over.

Scott, the longtime NHL enforcer that became a folk hero by capturing MVP honors at last year’s All-Star Game, officially announced his retirement from pro hockey on Wednesday.

From his piece in The Players’ Tribune:

It has been a hell of a ride. But I’m done. I am officially retired, as of today.

I scored five goals. I had four kids. And I had one hell of a good time over the years. By my count, I only had 43 fights in the NHL. I only really lost one clean, in my humble opinion. Congratulations, Justin Johnson. You caught me with the left hook. What can I say? Good job.

Can I just make a final confession, though? I don’t care what people remember about me as a hockey player, but please remember this one thing: I didn’t love to fight. The actual 30 seconds of fighting was fine. Your adrenaline takes over and the competition of battling at such a high level is actually enjoyable. The problem is all the anticipation of having to drop the gloves with another very skilled individual who can hurt you.

The waiting is what drives you crazy. It’s not very easy on your psyche, especially once you have a family.

PHT covered Scott fairly extensively at the 2016 ASG in Nashville.

If I had one significant takeaway, it was this:

Scott was a really bright guy. (Note: considering he’s a mechanical engineering alumnus from Michigan Tech, this might not be a “significant takeaway.” But bear with me.)

He was bright enough to realize how lucky he was to play in the All-Star Game, but he was also bright enough to realize the platform it provided. Everybody got to see the side of Scott that went well beyond the punching and grappling — he was a quick-witted, introspective, genuine person that was unbelievably appreciative of the opportunities he’d been provided.

Yes, he knew he spent the better part of 10 professional hockey campaigns beating up opponents, or intimidating them into thinking he might.

But that’s what he had to do to get to the sport’s highest apex. And he wanted to make it clear — that didn’t define him as a person. He didn’t love it, but he loved playing in the NHL, and never took a second of his time in the league for granted.

It’s a complex narrative to weave, though. Which is why John Scott wanted to write his own story.

So he did.

He’s now forever be a part of NHL history, which is great. The stats might not reflect an unforgettable player — 286 games, 11 points, 544 PIM — but there he is, etched in the record books alongside a list of All-Star MVPs that includes the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux.

That’s pretty cool.

Happy trails, John Scott.

NHL on NBCSN: Ovechkin will look to stay out of the box against Bruins

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 18: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals collides with Zdeno Chara #33 of the Boston Bruins at the TD Garden on October 21, 2010 in Boston, Massachusetts.  The Bruins defeated the Capitals 4-1. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2016-17 campaign tonight when the Washington Capitals host the Boston Bruins at 8:00 p.m. ET. If you want to watch the game online, you can do so here.

The Capitals put an end to their three-game losing streak by defeating the Buffalo Sabres in overtime on Monday night, but the biggest thing that came out of that game was coach Barry Trotz’s criticism of Alex Ovechkin.

“If it’s going on again, then there’s not going to be a lot of power play and playing time,” Trotz said, per the Washington Post. “If my message is not getting through, then the only thing I have is really ice time.”

On Tuesday, Ovechkin, who has five minor penalties in his last three games, had a chance to respond to his coach’s comments.

“Obviously, I have to be on the ice and not in the penalty box,” Ovechkin said. “It’s a good thing we talk. It’s my mistakes, and I just have to handle it and don’t take those penalties.”

Washington’s captain seems to have taken the criticism in stride, and we’ll see if Trotz’s message gets through to him right away.

Beyond the Ovechkin story line, the Capitals have surprisingly had a difficult time scoring goals.

With names like Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and company, you’d think that they’d be willing to fill the net with ease. Instead, Washington currently sits 23rd in goals for with 61.

They’ll be going head-to-head with the team that’s scored the same amount of goals, the Boston Bruins.

Boston’s inability to score with regularity was a little easier to predict than Washington’s, but they’re hoping that their latest 4-3 OT win over the Panthers will give them a spark.

“A few more guys are feeling [better] about their games, and know that we’re capable of putting a crooked number up like that. It bodes well moving forward,” said David Backes, per CSN New England. “But you can’t think that we’re going to relax after the effort that we put in. We’ve got to skill to those dirty areas and still get those second and third chances, and not take anything off during those opportunities. It’s got to go to the back of the net.”

One Bruin who isn’t struggling, is David Pastrnak. The 20-year-old has been one of the pleasant surprises of the 2016-17 season.

He’s already scored 15 goals in 21 games, which puts him on pace to find the back of the net an incredible 55 times.

This should be a great one!

PHT Morning Skate: A beer named after Shayne Gostisbehere

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–Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere took the league by storm last year and obviously, people noticed. Starting on Friday, he’ll have a beer named after him. The Conshohocken Brewery is coming out with the “Ghost Bear Golden Ale”. (Bardown)

–No one expected rookie Brandon Carlo to make the Bruins out of camp, but he’s been terrific in his first NHL season. Thanks to his reach and wingspan, he’s been able to be effective in his own zone. “The one thing is that he’s so long and his stick is so long, it gives him time to recover because as a young kid in the league you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. He has the ability to come back and recover,” said teammate Torey Krug. (CSN New England)

–The Pittsburgh Penguins have an interesting dilemma with the upcoming expansion draft. First, they need to figure out if they’ll keep eight skaters and one goalie or seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie. Once that’s settled, the team will need to figure what to do with Marc-Andre Fleury and a youngster like Derrick Pouliot. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun takes a closer look at their situation. (ESPN)

–Through 24 games, Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon has yet to pick up a single penalty minute. Some people might see that as a positive thing, but others might feel he’s too soft. So, which one is it? We know what MacKinnon thinks: “I’m being aggressive. I’m playing regularly, just not taking any minors. I think it’s a good thing. Usually I’m good for some roughing penalties and I’ve asked a couple guys to fight this year. I’m not trying to have zero penalty minutes,” said MacKinnon. (Denver Post)

–Injuries have hit the Tampa Bay Lightning pretty hard this year, but they have a bargaining chip named Ben Bishop. Is it time for them to trade him? Here are five reasons why they should.  (The Hockey News)

–The San Jose Sharks are having some fun on social media. Their latest hilarious video involves players guessing which teammate of theirs is depicted in a young fan’s drawing. It’s pretty funny: