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.

There’s something off about the St. Louis Blues

Ottawa Senators' Mike Hoffman, second from left, celebrates after the Senators scored a goal against St. Louis Blues goalie Carter Hutton during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, in St. Louis. The Senators won 6-4. (AP Photo/Billy Hurst)
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The St. Louis Blues had another hiccup last night, falling 6-4 at home to Ottawa. They only mustered 23 shots on Sens goalie Mike Condon — and that’s been a theme in their past seven games. In fact, the Blues haven’t registered more than 26 shots since beating Chicago in the Winter Classic.

It was a particularly disappointing effort against the Senators. St. Louis had just returned from a California road trip, which started with a bad loss in Los Angeles but finished with encouraging wins in San Jose and Anaheim.

“We just didn’t manage the puck very well on the boards,” head coach Ken Hitchcock said, per the Post-Dispatch. “We weren’t as determined and as effort-based on the boards as were the two games previous.”

The Blues’ record now sits at a modest 23-17-5. For a team that only lost 24 times in regulation last season, it’s been a fairly significant fall-off. It’s also fair to say the departures of David Backes, Troy Brouwer, and Brian Elliott have been felt.

Slightly more than halfway through the schedule, St. Louis is by no means guaranteed a playoff spot. Nashville, with a game in hand, is lurking just three points back for third place in the Central. And if the Blues are caught by the Preds, they’ll have to fend off Los Angeles, Calgary, Vancouver, and perhaps Dallas or Winnipeg for one of the two wild-card spots.

It would be easy to just blame the goaltending. But while it’s true that neither Jake Allen nor Carter Hutton have been very good, the Blues have not been the dominant possession team they’ve shown they can be. In their last 20 games, their score-adjusted Corsi ranks 20th in the league. Now compare that to their last 20 games of last season, when they ranked third.

“I’d like to see us take control of the game a little bit more,” said forward Alex Steen, who’s been with the Blues long enough to know what a good performance looks and feels like.

Looking ahead, the Blues get a big test Thursday at home to Washington, then hit the road for three games in Winnipeg, Pittsburgh, and Minnesota.

A better performance against the Caps would go a long way. But only if it’s followed up with another and another.

Bottom line: it’s time for the Blues to get back to playing the way they can. If they still can.

So much fallout from that wild Rangers-Stars game

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 17:  Stephen Johns #28 of the Dallas Stars checks Pavel Buchnevich #89 of the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on January 17, 2017 in New York City. The Stars defeated the Rangers 7-6.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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For two teams that don’t have much history or play each other often, Dallas and New York had quite the monumental affair on Monday.

To recap:

• The two teams combined for 13 goals, and the Stars scored seven times in the first 40 minutes. The Rangers were booed while leaving the ice in the second period.

Cody Eakin, who last month served a four-game suspension for a huge hit on Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, was forced to answer for his antics by fighting Chris Kreider early in the second period. Today, Kreider was fined for hitting Eakin in the head with his own helmet.

• Speaking of Lundqvist, he was torched for seven goals on 27 shots,. He’s now allowed 12 goals on 49 shots in his last four periods played… and 20 goals on 113 shots in his last four games. He looks and sounds rattled, to put it mildly.

“I feel like it’s embarrassing and frustrating and disappointing at the same time,” Lundqvist said, per NHL.com. “I need to find another level. It’s not good enough.”

• Rangers forward Jesper Fast, who two games ago was rocked by Montreal’s Andrew Shaw, only played 6:31 last night and has now been ruled out for the next 7-10 days with an upper-body injury.

• Dallas d-man Johnny Oduya only played 8:31 and re-aggravated a lower-body injury that sidelined him earlier this season. The Stars have already ruled him out for Thursday’s game in Brooklyn.

Unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately — the Stars and Rangers won’t meet again this season.

Well, unless it’s in the Stanley Cup Final.

Kreider fined for hitting Eakin with helmet during fight

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Rangers forward Chris Kreider has been fined $5,000 for hitting Dallas’ Cody Eakin with his own helmet during a fight on Tuesday night, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety has announced.

The incident came nearly one month after Eakin was suspended four games for hitting Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist in a mid-December tilt in Dallas.

There was no retribution at the time — Eakin was kicked out of the game — but many figured the Stars forward would have to atone for his earlier indiscretion… and that’s exactly what happened at the 1:52 mark of the second period.

Kreider didn’t face any additional in-game punishment for his fight, aside from the standard five-minute major penalty. It’s possible the officials didn’t see the helmet swing, or perhaps it was so brief the zebras opted against calling it.

Whatever the case, it’s probably worth noting that Darcy Tucker was ejected from a game in 2005 for a similar act — hitting Cam Janssen in the head with his own helmet during a scrap — and, like Kreider, was fined after the fact, but not suspended.

 

 

Vanek likes Detroit, but knows he could be traded

TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 13:  Thomas Vanek #62 of the Detroit Red Wings gets ready for a face-off against Tampa Bay Lightning during a game at the Amalie Arena on October 13, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
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Thomas Vanek knows the deal. He’s a pending unrestricted free agent on a team that’s unlikely to make the playoffs. He has a respectable 12 goals and 18 assists in 33 games, and his cap hit is just $2.6 million.

Obviously, there’s going to be trade speculation as the March 1 deadline approaches.

“I like it here,” Vanek said of playing in Detroit, per NHL.com. “I enjoy my time here. I like the guys. My family likes it here. So obviously I’m hoping to put a good streak here together to get ourselves back in the picture so I can be here. But obviously I understand the business side of it. … If I’m moving, I’m getting pretty good at that too.”

The Red Wings are Vanek’s fifth NHL team. He’s been traded twice in his career, both times in 2013-14 when he went from the Sabres to the Islanders and then to the Canadiens.

What the Wings could get for Vanek remains to be seen. The 32-year-old has 20 goals in 63 career playoff games; however, he’s also faced intense criticism during a handful of his postseason performances.

Six points back of third place in the Atlantic, Detroit has not yet given up on extending its lengthy playoff streak. The Wings are coming off two big wins over Pittsburgh and Montreal. They host Boston tonight (on NBCSN).