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.

Lightning sign their other Nikita (Nesterov)

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - APRIL 07:  Nikita Nesterov #89 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center on April 7, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the New Jersey Devils 4-2.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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The Tampa Bay Lightning signed their second-most important Nikita on Monday, inking Nikita Nesterov to a one-year, $725K contract.

The 23-year-old defenseman has to appreciate the fact that this is a one-way deal, as the Lightning blueline isn’t the easiest group to crack. (That will be especially true if James Wisniewski makes an impression with his PTO.)

Nesterov has been battling for ice time the past two seasons and was also a member of Russia’s World Cup team. It’s super-important to note that he wears No. 89, which is a little unusual for a defenseman.

(Only the important tidbits here.)

Now, onto the tougher challenge of signing that other Nikita

Senators focus on MacArthur’s safety

EDMONTON, AB - NOVEMBER 13: Clarke MacArthur #16 of the Ottawa Senators in action against the Edmonton Oilers during an NHL game at Rexall Place on November 13, 2014 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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The Ottawa Senators were already trying to take a relatively safe approach with Clarke MacArthur, yet he suffered a concussion thanks to a Patrick Sieloff hit during a scrimmage.

It’s too early to say that MacArthur will be forced to retire after this latest injury. At the moment, the Senators were merely happy to see him at the rink receiving treatment, as Guy Boucher told reporters.

“At this point in time, it’s not about Clarke MacArthur the hockey player. It’s about Clarke MacArthur the person,” Mark Borowiecki said, according to the Ottawa Citizen’s Ken Warren.

It’s a thought echoed by Senators GM Pierre Dorion shortly after the check, noting that they’re most focused on MacArthur as a “human being.”

Many wonder if Sieloff will face repercussions – perhaps even being released – for delivering such a hit during a scrimmage, especially after just being acquired.

So far, it sounds like he isn’t getting much heat, at least beyond the initial reaction of players getting physical with him right after the check. Boucher said “we’re not pointing fingers at the young kid right now,” according to Warren.

Here’s video of that hit, by way of Silver Seven Sens:

Twitter has field day with Oilers’ dead-eyed mascot

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The Edmonton Oilers started a Photoshopping frenzy on Monday by unleashing their bizarre, dead-eyed mascot “Hunter” onto the Internet.

Give the team credit; the road to this mascot was paved with good intentions. Apparently thousands of Edmonton-area students aided in choosing “Hunter,” who is a tribute to the team’s original owner.

Here’s the introductory Tweet itself. Feel free to insert your own screaming noises.

Let’s bypass the Oilers’ more mundane release for a “bio” written in character by the, erm, “Canadian lynx” itself. Here’s a choice bit:

Like my lynx family and friends, I only come out at night to hunt, and on one of those nights I actually came across a bunch of kids playing hockey on an outdoor rink. One look at the game and I was hooked. The speed, the skill, the fun! I began climbing up the banks of the River Valley every night during the winter, catching shinny games with everyone wearing their Edmonton Oilers jerseys, both old and new! It didn’t take me long to become a hard core Oilers fan.

O…K.

Honestly, there are a lot of elements to unpack here. We almost don’t need people to bat this one around on social media, but then again, Hunter inspires references from “Too Many Cooks” to “Thundercats” and more.

Let’s gather some of the best bits.

Futility references

Hey, did you hear that the Oilers struggle to compete? The Internet sure did.

They sure did.

Pop culture references

More than one Thundercats reference.

Warning, if you’ve never watched “Too Many Cooks,” you might not want to go down that rabbit hole. (Either that, or you’ll feel like you REALLY missed out … there’s not a lot of room in between.)

Creepiness

Sensibly enough, most people hit the highest notes about how specifically terrifying that mascot is. Some of these mix in pop culture references too, but still:

All in all, it was quite a good time, right?

/Plans on sleeping with every light on.

Report: Gaborik (foot) to miss eight weeks

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 17: Marian Gaborik #12 of Team Europe celebrates his first period goal against Team USA during the World Cup of Hockey tournament at the Air Canada Centre on September 17, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Update: Yikes, the Los Angeles Kings announced that Marian Gaborik will be sidelined for eight weeks with a foot injury, according to the Los Angeles Times’ Helene Elliott.

Team Europe GM Miroslav Satan confirmed Gaborik’s departure:

“Due to a lower-body injury suffered on Sunday, forward Marian Gaborik has left Team Europe and he will not return. Marian was a very important part of Team Europe throughout the entire World Cup of Hockey and though he is leaving our group today, he remains a part of our team. We know he will be supporting us in the final against Team Canada and we wish him all the best in his recovery.”

***

Some bad news for Team Europe and the Los Angeles Kings — Marian Gaborik, who was seen this morning on crutches, is reportedly out of the World Cup of Hockey final and may miss the beginning of the NHL campaign as well.

The news, first reported by Sportsnet, comes after Gaborik played 17:58 in Europe’s shock semifinal win over Sweden, scoring his team’s opening goal.

Gaborik took a puck to the foot during the second period, yet managed to finish the game.

The veteran Slovak had enjoyed a good tournament prior to getting hurt, scoring a pair of goals while getting healthy doses of ice time, including nearly 19 in a win over the Czechs in the group stage.

With Gaborik out, Mikkel Boedker will (presumably) make his tournament debut. Boedker has been a healthy scratch for the Europeans thus far, though it’s possible he could continue to sit if head coach Ralph Krueger elects to dress seven defensemen — Luca Sbisa would get the call — rather than plug in another forward.

As for the ramifications for L.A… well, this could be tough. Gaborik, signed through 2021 at $4.875M per, only scored 12 goals and 22 points in 54 games last season — missing extensive time with a lingering knee injury — and the Kings were hopeful he was in line for a bounce-back campaign, especially given how good he looked at the World Cup.

Sportsnet reports Gaborik is headed back to Los Angeles today.