Two days that could set up Capitals for a bright future

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Let’s make no mistake about it: the 2011-12 season is a pivotal one for the Washington Capitals franchise. Many players will be harshly judged if the team comes up short again, while head coach Bruce Boudreau’s job is probably on the line.

If you take a step back, however, you’ll see that this team could be bound for great things. Maybe they were already hurtling toward that destination by merely employing Alex Ovechkin, but two days of great goalie-related moves could plant the final seeds for something truly special.

July 1, 2011: The Capitals realize that they’re just not that into Semyon Varlamov – at least at the price he wants. Shockingly, they managed to trade him to Colorado for the startling package of the Avs’ 2012 first round pick and a second rounder in either 2012 or 2013.

Getting two high-end picks is a significant victory even out of context, but it gets downright crazy when you consider the fact that Colorado was bad enough to receive the third pick in 2011. Naturally, the Avalanche aren’t guaranteed to tank again – they made a surprising run to the 2010 playoffs, after all – but the fact that the 2012 first rounder isn’t lottery protected just makes the trade astounding.

(Somewhere, an especially optimistic Capitals fan is picturing a Washington team with dual Swedish center-Russian winger combos of Nicklas Backstrom-Alex Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson-Nail Yakupov.)

July 2, 2011: GM George McPhee didn’t rest on his laurels after that master stroke deal, though. He made sure that the Capitals’ short-term future could be brighter than ever by signing world-class goalie Tomas Vokoun to a ridiculously cheap one-year, $1.5 million deal.

The Capitals have been the victims of great runs by goalies, especially Jarsolav Halak’s masterpiece in 2010. Thanks to Varlamov’s demands and a lax group of rival general managers, Washington opened up a spot for their best goalie since the days when Olaf Kolzig was in full-on Godzilla mode. (Some might argue that Vokoun’s even better, but we’ll see.)

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Things could get really interesting if the Capitals win the Cup and get the top overall pick in 2012. Even if they fall apart in 2011-12, McPhee would have the option of blowing a big portion of the team up without being forced into any corners. Mike Green, Alexander Semin, Vokoun, Mike Knuble and Dennis Wideman will see their contracts expire, so the team could change its direction in a single summer by letting them go.

Having what could be an outstanding first round pick wouldn’t hurt that hypothetical renovation process, either.

Leafs pass Bruins for third in Atlantic after gutsy win against Columbus

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It wasn’t pretty – especially if you’re disgusted by that Roman Polak hit – but the Toronto Maple Leafs keep generating big wins as a playoff return looks increasingly likely.

Toronto managed a 5-2 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday, passing the Boston Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division:

Maple Leafs: 83 points in 72 games
Bruins: 82 points in 73 games

This leaves the currently in-action New York Islanders four points behind the Bruins for the final wild card in the East.

The Maple Leafs aren’t just grabbing key points; they’re doing so against some strong opponents who’ve had plenty on the line, too. They beat a Metro contender in Columbus tonight, the Bruins on Monday, grabbed an OT point against Chicago on Saturday and handled the desperate Lightning last Thursday.

This game was all about William Nylander‘s brilliant start:

And also Toronto surviving a long penalty kill after that Polak hit:

Nazem Kadri‘s 30th goal really put the game out of reach, helping Toronto nab a significant victory.

The Blue Jackets can wallow in this defeat and Oliver Bjorkstrand‘s injury, either, as they turn around to face the Washington Capitals in a big one tomorrow.

Tortorella was irate after Roman Polak boarded Oliver Bjorkstrand

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John Tortorella was left enraged after Roman Polak delivered a dangerous boarding hit on Oliver Bjorkstrand, and he probably wasn’t too pleased after the Columbus Blue Jackets failed to make Toronto pay for Polak’s misdeeds.

Polak received a game misconduct and boarding major for the hit, but the Blue Jackets failed to score on a lengthy power play. Tortorella played to script, as cameras caught him expressing his anger at the situation.

First, take a look at the hit:

Next, behold Tortorella’s anger:

Again, Columbus couldn’t capitalize on its opportunities, so that didn’t make things any better.

Right now, the Maple Leafs lead the Blue Jackets 3-2. If Toronto ends up winning, this will stand as one of the game’s pivotal moments.

It’s far from the only exciting moment, however, with these goals and big hits also standing out.

Video: Josh Ho-Sang’s creativity gives Islanders a shot in the arm

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Honestly, after 10 games, the question shouldn’t be “can Josh Ho-Sang stick with the Islanders full-time?” Instead, the feeling is … what took so long for him to get this chance?

For all the grumbling about Ho-Sang sporting number 66, he’s provided serious bursts of brilliance and creativity for the Islanders, whether he’s been supporting or even setting up John Tavares.

The video above is some really good stuff, as it walks through his confident comments – and undeniable uncertainty – during the night he was drafted, all the way through him getting his chance with the Isles this season. Some of the best stuff comes from Doug Weight, who raves that Ho-Sang is a “five out of five” from an offensive standpoint.

Leafs’ Nylander puts on show with breakaway goal, assist on Matthews’ 33rd

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This wouldn’t have been worth a chuckle if not for the correction. (Well, maybe a chuckle at Auston Matthews‘ expense.)

On the 33rd goal of his brilliant rookie season, Auston Matthews made it 2-0 for Toronto on the power play. Crusty “act like you’ve been there” types might grumble that he actually celebrated before a goal really happened, only to tap it in for real the second time around. The rest of us, again, get a mild chuckle.

William Nylander‘s pass was nothing to laugh at, however. That one just gets a big thumbs up.

Hnnngmgghh indeed.

That goal could end up being key as the Blue Jackets quickly scored to start the second period, shrinking Toronto’s lead to 2-1 on Wednesday.

Update: OK, so Nylander’s really stealing the show. This is stupendous.