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.

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

“The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.