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.

Video: The Ducks and Kings brawl — again

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Oh, look at that: Another heated melee involving the Anaheim Ducks and L.A. Kings.

You’ll recall a first-period fight fest in a pivotal Pacific Division game between these teams almost one full year ago. On Saturday, in another meeting between these California rivals, the Ducks and Kings were once again at odds.

This latest conflict? Well, Corey Perry was involved. Again. (Last year, order had been restored during a brief scrum before Perry gave an extra shot to a Kings player, resulting in mayhem.)

Perry was called this time around for interference on Anze Kopitar. Kings players, as you might expect, suddenly rushed over before Nate Thompson and Brayden McNabb squared off in the main event.

 

Kings activate Jonathan Quick from IR and he is starting against the Ducks

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 08:  Goaltender Jonathan Quick #32 of the Los Angeles Kings tends net during a preseason game against the Colorado Avalanche at T-Mobile Arena on October 8, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Colorado won 2-1 in overtime.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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For the first time since the season opener the Los Angeles Kings are going to have starting goaltender Jonathan Quick in their lineup on Saturday afternoon when they take on the Anaheim Ducks.

Quick, who has played just 20 minutes of hockey this season, has been out of the lineup since Oct. 12 due to a groin injury. The team activated him from injured reserve on Saturday before the game.

In his absence the Kings had to rely on Peter Budaj to carry the load, and he did a pretty admirable job with a .917 save percentage (the best performance of his career) in 53 appearances. Keep in mind that Quick’s save percentage the past four seasons has been .914.

While Quick’s absence seemed like it could have been a big deal at the start of the year, the biggest factor in the Kings’ disappointing season has been on the offensive side, especially in recent weeks as the team’s goal scoring woes have seemingly hit rock bottom. In their past nine games the Kings have managed just 15 goals, and that includes one game where they scored six. Simple math says they scored only nine goals in the other eight games. Not great. They were also shutout three times during that stretch.

Even if Quick is the Kings’ best goalie, and even if he returns to the lineup and plays extremely well down the stretch, it is not going to make much of a difference if the offense continues to score at that sort of abysmal level.

The Kings enter Saturday’s game five points out of the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.

Goalie nods: Murray, Neuvirth get the call at Heinz Field

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers take their long-time rivalry outside on Saturday night it will be Matt Murray and Michael Neuvirth getting the starts in goal for the teams.

For the Penguins, Murray getting the start is no shock at this point since he has clearly taken over the No. 1 job, starting 14 of the past 17 games the Penguins have played and currently owning some of the best numbers of any goalie in the league this season. His .925 save percentage that is currently fifth best in the NHL while his .935 save percentage during even-strength situations is tied for second best.

He has allowed just 10 goals in his past six starts.

The Penguins’ goaltending situation is still going to be one worth watching over the next couple of days leading up to the NHL trade deadline. With Murray as the guy in net trade speculation surrounding Marc-Andre Fleury has picked up, and even though general manager Jim Rutherford said earlier this week that he would prefer to keep Fleury, he mentioned on Friday that a decision resulting his short-term future will be made in the 24-48 hours leading up to the deadline.

Meanwhile, on the Philadelphia side, it will be Neuvirth getting another start as he tries to shake off the rust he has shown since returning to the lineup from an injury that sidelined him for a large portion of the season. Since returning he has just an .894 save percentage in eight starts, continuing what has been an overall disappointing season for him in net.

He faced the Penguins earlier this season in a 5-4 loss, giving up two goals on 12 shots in relief of starter Steve Mason.

Elsewhere on Saturday…

— It will be Jonathan Bernier vs. Jonathan Quick on Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles when the Ducks and Kings face off.

— Phillip Grubauer gets the call for the Washington Capitals when they visit the Nashville Predators and try to prevent Filip Forsberg from recording yet another hat trick. No word yet on who is starting for the Predators.

— Joonas Korpisalo will be giving Sergei Bobrovsky the night off for the Columbus Blue Jackets when they host Thomas Greiss and the New York Islanders.

— The Rangers will go with Antti Raanta for their rivalry showdown with the New Jersey Devils. Cory Schneider goes for the Devils.

— Huge game in Toronto when it comes to the Atlantic Division standings with the Maple Leafs facing off against a Canadiens team they trail by only four points. It will be a Carey Price vs. Frederik Anderson goalie matchup.

Ryan Miller, suddenly the subject of trade speculation, will start for the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday when they face the San Jose Sharks. Look for Martin Jones to go for the Sharks.

Robin Lehner and Calvin Pickard go for the Sabres and Avalanche respectively on Saturday night in Denver.

Antoine Vermette’s 10-game suspension upheld by Gary Bettman

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The NHL announced on Saturday afternoon that commissioner Gary Bettman has upheld the 10-game suspension the league issued to Anaheim Ducks forward Antoine Vermette for an abuse of official incident that happened earlier this month.

Bettman met with Vermette on Thursday and heard his appeal, and has ruled that the 10-game ban will remain in place.

Vermette was ejected from the Ducks’ Feb. 14 game against the Minnesota Wild after he slashed linesman Shandor Alphonso in the leg following a face off. The NHL ruled that it was a Category II abuse of official foul, which carries an automatic 10-game suspension. He has already served four of those games. He will lose $97,222.22 in salary as a result of the entire suspension.

Vermette’s suspension is the third abuse of official suspension we have seen in the NHL over the past two years following the 20-game ban Dennis Wideman received last year (later reduced to 10 games) and the three-game suspension given to Arizona Coyotes defenseman Anthony DeAngelo this season.

After signing a two-year, $3.5 million contract with the Ducks in free agency, Vermette has eight goals and 14 assists in 58 games this season.