(Special thanks to Rob Yunich from Storming the Crease for his thoughts on the Caps. Make sure to follow Rob during what could be a very deep playoff run for Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. StC is one of the many great hockey blogs devoted to the Caps.)
Hockey Orphan: Washington Capitals
In October, the Hockey News dubbed the Washington Capitals “the most exciting team in the NHL” and for good reason. There’s a lot to love about the Caps: Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, Coach Bruce Boudreau, the team’s Rock the Red campaign, a packed home crowd every night and even the team’s feud with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers.
The Caps are a young team that has soared under Boudreau’s leadership, even though it still shows signs of inexperience. The Caps can beat any team in the NHL any night. But, when they’re lackadaisical, the Caps can make the New York Islanders or Atlanta Thrashers look like Stanley Cup contenders. It’s a maddening trend that gives Caps’ fans many gray hairs, but there’s no doubt the good outweighs the bad.
(All stats as of April 8.)
Alex Ovechkin: The NHL’s best player and reigning MVP is a bundle of energy every night. He’s scored 218 goals in four seasons (with two games left this season) and still has managed to register 200 career assists. He’s also only the second player in league history to eclipse the 500-shot mark. Simply put, he makes everybody around him better.
Ovechkin wears his emotions on his sleeve, celebrates every Caps’ goal (whether he scored it or not) and is great for the game of hockey. He’s determined to guide the Caps to their first Stanley Cup and has nearly single-handedly turned the nation’s capital into a hockey-mad community.
Green, Backstrom and Alex Semin: Lest you think the Caps are a one-man team, the squad boasts three other players that could dominate on any given night. The trio, along with Ovechkin, gives the Caps four players who average more than a point per game for the season, something no other NHL team can claim.
Green is a strong contender for the Norris Trophy after racking up 30 goals and 40 assists in just 66 games. He’s one of three 30-goal getters on the Caps (Ovechkin and Semin are the others) and is dominant on the power play with 18 goals.
Semin isn’t just the “other Alex” as he’s come out of his shell with a career-high 76 points this season. He has moves that could qualify him for the Harlem Globetrotters and possibly the best wrist shot in the league. But there is a maddening side to Semin, too, which drives fans crazy. (More about this later.)
Backstrom doesn’t get nearly the accolades he should. As his sophomore season is winding down, Backstrom has racked up the ninth-most assists in league history for a player’s first two seasons (118) -- and might move up to eighth if he registers three more helpers in the teams’ final two games.
Boudreau: The reigning Jack Adams Award winner has the Caps within one point of tying their best point total in franchise history. But perhaps his greatest feat this season has been guiding the Caps through nearly 400-man games lost to injury and the use of 41 different players -- including 16 members of the AHL’s Hershey Bears (who are nearing the 50-win plateau themselves). “Gabby” has his finger on the pulse of the team and continues to push the right buttons as the Caps grow and mature.
Unsung heroes: Brooks Laich, Tomas Fleischmann, Eric Fehr and David Steckel aren’t household names around the NHL but they are staples in the Caps’ lineup. They serve very important roles -- especially on the penalty kill and around the net in every situation. These four are the type of players that are vital to winning a Cup. It also doesn’t hurt that Laich (along with Backstrom) hasn’t missed a game all season.
Verizon Center: The Caps have created one of the best home-ice advantages in the league and finished their home schedule with an Eastern Conference-best 29-9-3 mark at “the phone booth.” The team’s Rock the Red campaign has led to numerous “red outs” and the arena can get mind-numbingly loud -- especially during the playing of a very clever “Unleash the Fury” series of clips.
The Future: The best is still ahead for the franchise. Of the team’s core players, Semin is the oldest at 25. Backstrom (21), Fehr (23), Fleischmann (24), Laich (25), Ovechkin (23) and Green (23) have lots of hockey left in them. Throw in stud prospects Oskar Osala (21), Karl Alzner (20), Joe Finley (21), John Carlson (19) and Simeon Varlamov (20), and this is a team that could dominate for years to come. In fact, Varlamov is making a strong case to take over as the team’s starting goaltender as early as next season.
Semin: As much skill as Semin possesses, he remains an enigma. He has stretches of brilliance followed by periods of invisibility. He regularly commits penalties that Boudreau abhors and doesn’t play much defense. As easily as Semin can take over a game, he is just as capable of giving it away. He is due to be a restricted free agent after next season and, at about $5 million per season, is sure to be the subject of a heated internal debate.
Inconsistency: Similarly, the Caps have nights when they resemble the 70-point teams from not too long ago. When they don’t crash the net, or stick to Boudreau’s perfectly-suited system, they tend to suffer. With so much skill up and down the roster, players sometimes act selfishly at the suffering of the team. The Caps easily could have won at least five more games this season -- and that is sure to be addressed this off-season.
Unbalanced Scoring: Despite the unsung heroes mentioned above, the bulk of the scoring belongs to Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin and Green. Boudreau has been trying to increase the “secondary scoring” but it hasn’t work as much as everybody would like. This has led to some of the team’s maddening losses.
Defense: For a team that averages 3.25 goals per game (third best in the league), the Caps allow a pedestrian 2.89 tallies per contest. This is caused by the absence of a solid defensive player other than Green. Brian Pothier’s return from a 14-month absence has helped, but Tom Poti, John Erskine, Jeff Schultz and Milan Jurcina have frustrated executives and fans all season.
Many hope Alzner is the team’s defensive savior but, although he’s been solid in limited action, that plan hasn’t come to fruition yet. Schultz has improved during the season, but at 23, he’s still learning the trade. Poti’s play has declined and Jurcina might be a bigger enigma than Semin. Erskine is a tough guy who seems to be slow as a tortoise.
GM George McPhee most likely will go after Jay Bouwmeester this off-season and, along with Alzner and maybe Carlson, the team’s defensive future is bright. But that doesn’t take away from an exasperating present that sometimes forces the Caps to score five goals just to eke out a one-goal victory.
History: With all of this great news, this is a franchise that only has reached the Stanley Cup finals once (1998, when they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings) and conference finals twice (1998, 1990). Part of this is due to many years in the uber-tough Patrick Division, but the Caps also have missed the playoffs five times since making the 1998 Stanley Cup finals. The team has won the Southeast Division title four of the 10 years it has existed (including this season), but that hasn’t translated into a deep playoff run.
As you can see, there’s a lot going for you if you chose to adopt the Caps. You may be driven to insanity along the way, but stick with the Caps and you’ll probably get to see history unfold before your eyes.
Ovechkin could surpass the 500-goal mark before he turns 30 and Backstrom might register 100 assists in a season before too long. Many people believe the Caps are destined to win a Stanley Cup in the not-too-distant future. And if that’s not incentive enough, on a nightly basis you’ll get to witness a group of players who love the game, play with mind-boggling skill and are as cohesive as any team in any sport.