2011-12 season preview: Washington Capitals

1 Comment

2010-11 record: 48-23-11, 107 points; 1st in Southeast; 1st in East

Playoffs: Defeated New York Rangers 4-1 in Eastern quarterfinals, lost to Tampa Bay 4-0 in Eastern semifinals

The Capitals’ recent history has been dominated by a common theme: great regular seasons deleted by playoff disappointments. To some, those postseason failures erase all of the good things that happened in those 82 games. Fair or not, casual fans will paste the “choker” label on this team until they win a Stanley Cup.

Even after coach Bruce Boudreau changed the game plan from all-out offense to a more traditional (read: conservative and boring) approach, the team still flopped in the big time after posting the top record in the Eastern Conference. This season won’t be the final straw for Alex Ovechkin and a few others, but it’s a make-or-break campaign for Boudreau, Mike Green and much of the team’s familiar faces.

Offense

The Capitals’ 224 regular-season goals was the second-lowest total of all Eastern playoff teams – only Montreal found the back of the net less frequently (216 goals).

While Washington might not be as high-flying as its once was, expect the top guns to soar again. Both Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom should bounce back after suffering from career-low shooting percentages. Alexander Semin must realize that this could be his last shot to stay in Washington (and he is only signed through the season, which should add more incentive for a strong campaign).

Along with likely bounce-back seasons for incumbent stars, the Capitals’ future should look different after GM George McPhee added a few helpings of elbow grease. Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward are two wingers who play physical styles, adding grit to their upper ranks along with returning garbage goal specialist Mike Knuble and two-way center Brooks Laich. Jeff Halpern is a blast from the past who might work out nicely if he can stay healthy.

Jason Arnott might have been a voice of reason, but the team probably won’t miss him, eternal injury-list member Marco Sturm, Eric Fehr and other departed forwards all that much.

Defense

The defense is an interesting mix of players whose strengths could surprise some.

Green should be a bigger factor after an injury-plagued second half last season. Health is a big hurdle for Dennis Wideman, who’s essentially a less potent (but more physical) version of Green. Those two offensive defensemen are complemented by the up-and-coming shutdown pair of youngsters in Karl Alzner and John Carlson.

While Tomas Vokoun ranks as a bombshell of an upgrade in goal and Ward covers the “slightly overspend for a missing piece” aspect of the offseason, Roman Hamrlik is a big upgrade over Scott Hannan. He might not be as physical, but still manages to slow scorers down. Hamrlik can provide some offense as well, which might earn him some time on the power play.

Overall, the Capitals have an interesting group that could round out to one of the better defense corps in the East – if they stay reasonably healthy.

Goalies

Vokoun gives the Capitals something they haven’t had in their previous runs: a legitimate difference-maker in net. Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth had their moments and Jose Theodore did what he could, but none of them can match Vokoun’s impressive resume. Maybe big-time pressure might rattle a goalie who put up dominant numbers under the radar, but chances are good that he’ll thrive with the kind of goal support he’s never seen in Florida or Nashville.

The Capitals have fantastic insurance if Vokoun doesn’t work out (or shows his age a bit). Neuvirth’s individual numbers weren’t great in the regular season, but teammates and onlookers raved about his calm demeanor – something that shouldn’t be overlooked in a reactionary atmosphere. Even Braden Holtby showed some flashes of brilliance in spot duty last year, although fans should be warned about the dangers of small sample sizes.

Coach

Boudreau is a likeable guy who turned around a moribund franchise (with the help of an incredibly talented young cast, of course). That being said, people who constantly compare the Capitals to the Pittsburgh Penguins might view Boudreau as Washington’s Michel Therrien – a guy who bridged the gap from bad to good but couldn’t win a Cup. This might be Bellicose Bruce’s last chance to prove people wrong. It would be nice if he went out his way by playing a “guns blazing” style rather than last season’s compromised system, but either way, Boudreau needs some big results in the playoffs.

Breakout candidate

Alzner and especially Carlson could grab even more attention, but they played big enough minutes that they cannot be called breakout players. That title might go to the Capitals other Swedish center, Marcus Johansson. He looked solid (13 goals, 27 points) in his first 69 games at the NHL level and could provide valuable depth scoring for a team that might be a little top-heavy skill wise.

Best-case scenario

Vokoun proves he’s the real deal, finally giving the Capitals the hot goalie that felled them in postseasons past. Ovechkin and Backstrom go back to being, well, Ovechkin and Backstrom. Green, Semin and Boudreau silence their critics with a dominant run to earn that elusive Stanley Cup win. People who love calling professional athletes “chokers” turn their attention back to the San Jose Sharks – even if the Capitals beat them in the championship round.

Reality

The Capitals are loaded in almost every area, although they could use a better second-line center. Laich is a great checker but might be better off with a third-line role and Johansson might not be ready for that job either.

Things are looking pretty good if that’s your biggest trouble spot, although Semin and Green haters will probably disagree. Simply put, Vokoun pushes Washington to the level of genuine favorites.

Schultz and Hornqvist will be game-time decisions; Sheary may play

Leave a comment

Justin Schultz and Patric Hornqvist will be game-time decisions for the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight at PPG Paints Arena.

That was the word this morning from head coach Mike Sullivan, who said yesterday that it would be “reasonable” to expect the two players to return for Game 7 against the Ottawa Senators.

But the signs from this morning’s optional skate were not particularly promising for either player.

Schultz did not opt to skate, which does not necessarily rule him out for tonight. That said, players returning from injury often choose to test things out the morning of the game, just to be sure they’re ready to go.

Hornqvist did skate; however, he stayed on the ice rather late, likewise putting his status for tonight into doubt.

In other news, Conor Sheary may return to the lineup. Sheary skated this morning and left the ice with the players who are playing, while Josh Archibald skated and stayed on later. That suggests Sheary, a scratch in Games 5 and 6, could replace Archibald.

Oilers reportedly lose Lander to Russia

Getty
Leave a comment

After eight years and over 200 games, Edmonton and Anton Lander are parting ways.

Per Sport-Express’ Igor Eronko, Lander has reportedly agreed to join KHL club Ak Bars Kazan. The deal comes after Lander’s two-year, $1.975M pact with the Oilers expired, and he became a restricted free agent.

The 40th overall pick in ’09, Lander had some decent spells in Edmonton. In ’14-15, he racked up 20 points in 38 games — which led to the aforementioned two-year extension — but could never find his niche as a full-time NHLer.

As a result, Lander ended up as one of those guys that racked up points in the AHL, but struggled to replicate similar success in the bigs. Last year, with Bakersfield, he had 25 goals and 55 points in just 42 games.

At 26, he was probably ready to part ways with the only NHL organization he’s ever known. Earlier reports suggested Lander was also mulling a return to his native Sweden.

Report: Rangers goalie Hellberg to sign with Chinese KHL team

Getty
3 Comments

Magnus Hellberg, the once-touted netminder that came to New York from Nashville two years ago, has reportedly left North America to join the KHL’s Chinese club, Red Star Kunlun.

The deal, per Russian news outlet R-Sport, is of the one-year variety and it comes after Hellberg appeared in a pair of games for the Rangers last season, spending most of his time in AHL Hartford.

Hellberg did fare well in his limited action with the Blueshirts, posting a .929 save percentage and 1.53 GAA.

As mentioned above, Hellberg came into the NHL with some fanfare. Selected in the second round (38th overall) by Nashville at the 2011 draft, Hellberg was first goalie off the board, taken one spot ahead of Anaheim’s John Gibson. There was some thought he would be Pekka Rinne‘s eventual successor in goal, but never panned out and was later surpassed by Juuse Saros as the team’s goalie of the future.

In New York, Hellberg was stuck at No. 3 on the depth chart behind Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta.

Pekka Rinne’s been the Predators’ backbone during run to final

1 Comment

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Knocking the smile off Pekka Rinne‘s face right now is nearly impossible.

The longest-tenured player with the Nashville Predators, the 34-year-old goaltender finally will play in his first Stanley Cup Final in his ninth full NHL season.

“As a player, I feel like I’ve had a fairly long career and never had this opportunity,” Rinne said. “So very fortunate and really appreciate this opportunity. I guess as a player you just enjoy being in this position. Enjoy the chance that you get, and you put your body on the line every night and give everything you have.”

Teammates call the 6-foot-5 Finn the backbone of the Predators, and he’s probably the best goalie in the world at the moment. He handles the puck like an extra defenseman. He foils the dump-and-chase efforts of opponents. And, oh, is he good in front of the net, aggressive with forwards in the crease, seeing seemingly everything and occasionally making saves with a Dominik Hasek-like contortion.

Not only is Rinne a playoff-best 12-4, his .945 save percentage ranks third all-time for a single postseason behind a pair of Conn Smythe Trophy winners in Jean-Sebastien Giguere for Anaheim in 2003 and Jonathan Quick for Los Angeles in 2012, according to HockeyReference.com. Rinne’s 1.70 goals-against average is 10th all-time for one postseason.

“What he does every night, you can’t put into words,” Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban said.

The 19-year-old franchise has reached its first Stanley Cup Final behind Rinne’s standout performances.

After Nashville ousted Anaheim in six games Monday night , Rinne now is even stingier on home ice with a 7-1 record, 1.54 GAA and .947 save percentage. He made 38 saves on a night where Nashville took only 18 shots.

“Anytime you need to close a series out, you know that as a goalie you got to be good and as a team you got to be good,” Rinne said.

The native of Kampele, Finland, has been better than good. He also has the skill to skate out to play the puck. With coach Peter Laviolette’s team clogging the neutral zone to slow opponents, Rinne is an extra (tall) layer of frustration waiting at the end of the ice for opponents who dump the puck in – even those high on the glass.

Anaheim defenseman Kevin Bieksa said Rinne will throw his body against the glass to knock the puck down so he can pass it out to a teammate essentially turning the goalie into another defender.

“You don’t see many goalies that aggressive,” Bieksa said. “And he’s gone out, he’s played a lot of pucks. And he’s good at it. One of their strengths, for sure.”

Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle noted Rinne had eight plays on the puck alone in the first period of Game 5, a 3-1 Nashville win that put the Predators up 3-2 in the Western Conference finals.

“You can’t give him that type of opportunity,” Carlyle said.

Laviolette calls goaltender the most important position on the ice and he said Rinne’s confidence is a huge benefit for the team.

“And it gives you opportunities,” he said.

Rinne now has 34 playoff victories and is no longer at the top of a list no goalie likes. Washington’s Braden Holtby (29) is now the active goalie with the most postseason wins who hasn’t reached the final.

The only surprise was that it took Rinne this long. He’s a three-time finalist for the Vezina Trophy, finishing second in 2011 and 2015. He led the league with 43 wins in 2011-12 and was MVP of the 2014 world championships.

Rinne bounced back from a hip injury that required arthroscopic surgery and later an E. coli infection that limited him to 24 games in the 2013-14 season. With him out of the lineup, Nashville just missed the postseason, leading general manager David Poile to replace coach Barry Trotz with Laviolette.

“I think David and the owners have done a really good job providing Peter more tools and maybe higher quality players and more talent,” Rinne said.

Defenseman Mattias Ekholm says Rinne’s competitive streak comes out on the ice.

“He will put his foot down, and say, `Hey, this is my crease. This is where I am,”‘ Ekholm said. “So I wouldn’t say he’s as polite on the ice vs. our opponents. He’s always a competitor, and he always wants to win.”

The next chance for a win comes Monday night in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.