Alex Ovechkin

2011-12 season preview: Washington Capitals

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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.

Video: Brian Elliott takes a blast off the mask, stays in the game

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A bit of a scary moment in the third period of Game 2 between the Stars and Blues.

Less than five minutes into the third period, Jason Spezza took a shot that caught Blues goalie Brian Elliott square in the mask. Play was halted as Elliott remained down. It appears as though the shot to the mask also made Elliott lose one of his contacts.

Thankfully, Elliott wasn’t seriously injured on the play. After being examined by the team doctor, he was allowed to stay into the game. He did need a new mask though (he got his original one back a few minutes later).

You can watch the play by clicking the video at the top of the page.

The Blues currently lead 3-2 late in the third period.

Here’s some Twitter reaction:

 

Lehtonen only lasts one period in Game 2

Lehtonen
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Kari Lehtonen might have been more hit than miss in the playoffs going into today’s action, but Game 2 against St. Louis was certainly a start he’d like to forget.

Dallas outshot St. Louis 10-5 in the first frame, but the Blues still managed to take a 3-1 lead. Antti Niemi replaced Lehtonen for the second period which means, barring another goalie change, Lehtonen will actually end up with a sub-.500 save percentage this afternoon.

The numbers obviously look bad and it’s hard not to blame Lehtonen in the face of that, but the Blues deserve a lot of the credit for those goals. Patrik Berglund had a great shot on goal for the first marker, Joel Edmundson‘s first career playoff goal came after a nice setup by Troy Brouwer, and when Brouwer collected his own goal it was off of a rebound during a power play.

So to an extent, you could say Lehtonen looked bad due to circumstances that were very unfavorable to him. Nevertheless, the Stars needed to shake things up after what was unquestionably a bad period for them.

Dupuis, Jagr, Zuccarello are Masterton Trophy finalists

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 18:  Pascal Dupuis #9 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in action against the New York Rangers during their game at Madison Square Garden on December 18, 2013 in New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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Pittsburgh’s Pascal Dupuis, Florida’s Jaromir Jagr, and the Rangers’ Mats Zuccarello have been selected as the three finalists for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy.

The Masterton Trophy recognizes “the National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.” In 2015 it went to Devan Dubnyk, who struggled mightily in 2013-14, but dramatically turned his career around the following season and led the Minnesota Wild to the playoffs in the process.

Dupuis attempted to play in the 2015-16 campaign while taking blood thinners, but on Dec. 8 he announced that he would stop playing “because of a medical condition related to blood clots.”

Jagr celebrated his 44th birthday in February, but despite his age he managed to score 27 goals and 66 points in 79 contests this season. With that, he became the oldest player to reach the 60-point mark in a single NHL campaign.

Zuccarello played in 81 games and set career-highs with 26 goals and 61 points this season after suffering a skull fracture and brain contusion during the 2015 playoffs that left him temporarily unable to speak.

Can there be parallels drawn between the 2016 Ducks and 2014 Sharks?

Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Kesler (17) takes the puck up ice on a breakaway with San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, center, and Ducks center Nate Thompson, right, trailing on the play during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Anaheim, Calif., Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
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The Anaheim Ducks might not have suffered a reverse sweep at the hands of one of their biggest rivals, but they seem to have reached a breaking point when it comes to playoff disappointments.

After firing head coach Bruce Boudreau, GM Bob Murray was highly critical of the team’s core, even noting that at this point he’s not a fan of long-term contracts. That was perhaps a swipe at how he feels Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf‘s eight-year $69 million and $66 million contracts have worked out thus far. Meanwhile Ryan Kesler‘s six-year deal worth roughly $41 million is about to begin.

After San Jose suffered its first round loss to the Los Angeles Kings in 2014, Sharks GM Doug Wilson said they were now becoming a “tomorrow team” and they began a cultural shift that included Joe Thornton losing the captaincy.

There are differences of course between the two situations. One notable one is that the Sharks’ guard was already starting to change hands in 2013-14. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau were entering their mid-30s, but Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture were on the rise. Anaheim’s core of Getzlaf and Perry is significantly younger, but while Anaheim also has some promising forwards like Jakob Silfverberg, that generation of players doesn’t seem ready to carry the torch for the Ducks.

“We don’t have a lot of young guys in the lineup. … Today’s a much different feeling leaving the rink,” Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano said, per the Los Angeles Times. “In those [previous] years there’s been a sense of hope. Today, there’s zero feeling like that.”

Perhaps the Anaheim Ducks will find hope by watching the rest of the 2016 playoffs. If the San Jose Sharks continue to succeed, they will be an example of a team that once underachieved, hit a critical low, but then managed to fix that in a relatively short time without a massive turnover in terms of on-ice personnel. While we’re at it, you could make a similar argument for the Washington Capitals.

Maybe Murray will look to those franchises for inspiration as he moves forward.