Success hasn’t come easily for the Capitals throughout their history. When they had strong teams throughout the 1990s, they always seemed to fall short in the playoffs for one reason: The Pittsburgh Penguins were their kryptonite. Washington was eliminated seemingly every other year by their foes to the West. Then the Capitals traded for Penguin superstar Jaromir Jagr as their archrival was falling into financial distress and he continued to perpetuate the team’s Pittsburgh curse by playing the petulant superstar and forcing a trade to New York while drawing the league’s biggest salary. Jagr’s short tenure in Washington divebombed the team’s on-ice success and ledger sheet and led to one of their worst seasons in history, leaving them with the league’s 2 nd worst record behind the Penguins.
Then the Capitals hit the jackpot, beating out Pittsburgh in the 2004 draft lottery for the top pick, which turned out to be megastar Alexander Ovechkin. Finally, the Capitals had the skill advantage and a world class star to rule the East with after being defeated by Lemieux and Jagr for some many years! That is, until the 2 nd pick behind Ovechkin turned out to be superstar Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins upped the ante by picking up the face of hockey a year later when they won the Sidney Crosby sweepstakes. What does poor Washington have to do to finally get past the Penguins?
Looking Back at 2008-2009
The Capitals had a heck of season in 2008-2009, running away with the Southeast Division title thanks to a 50-24-8 record. Ovechkin continued his superstar play by scoring 56 goals and 110 points and young playmaker Nick Backstrom came into his own with 88 points. Even better, defenseman Mike Green became the first defenseman in nearly two decades to score more than 30 goals and was a finalist for the Norris Trophy! This young group of Capitals marched into the playoffs and most of the roster won their first career playoff series as they defeated the New York Rangers.
However, the archrival Penguins waited in the second round and after winger Alexander Semin had questioned Crosby’s superstar qualifications early in the season, tensions had risen considerably between the two squads. Washington jumped out to an early lead after the Capitals won a memorable Game 2 which featured Crosby and Ovechkin registering dueling hat tricks, but it wasn’t enough. Pittsburgh fought back to take the series to a 7 th game and the Penguins brutalized the Capitals 6-2 to continue their mastery over their rivals in the nation’s capital.
The Capitals are an exceptionally young team, so they didn’t really make any major moves in the offseason. Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov departed to finish out their careers in Russia and the Capitals brought in gritty winger Mike Knuble and center Brendan Morrison to fill the void. Frankly, Washington didn’t need to make a lot of moves: Their top farm team won the AHL championship last season and there is a plethora of talent on the way.
Everyone knows that the Capitals are Ovie’s team. The most flamboyant player in hockey is also the best scorer on the planet and brings a major physical element to his game. At age 24, he’s just really entering the prime of his career and no one would be shocked if he scored 60 or more goals this season. He was the league MVP last year and he might win the award again this season.
But Backstrom, Semin (34 goals last year), Brooks Laich, Thomas Fleischmann and Dave Steckel highlight a young core around Ovechkin that adds Knuble and Morrison. Don’t forget about veteran playmaker Michal Nylander either, who had a tough season but has the ability to give the Caps a 3 rd dangerous scoring line. With so much elite young talent, the Caps are going to score a ton of goals this season.
Their defense was their Achilles Heel last season. Despite Green’s 31 goals and 73 points, he isn’t a great defender and the Caps were exposed against Pittsburgh on the blue line. Milan Jurcina, Shaone Morrison and Tom Poti round out their top four but this is a unit that badly needs to improve in their own end.
The Capitals also have a serious goaltending question. Jose Theodore was the team’s starting goaltender all season but after an early poor showing in the first round of the playoffs, rookie Semyon Varlemov was inserted despite only playing 6 games in the regular season. Varlemov played inspired throughout the playoffs and at 21 is clearly the team’s keeper of the future. Expect strong play from Theodore in a contract year but it wouldn’t be shocking to see him dealt at some point for help on the blue line.
PREDICTION: This is a very similar team to last year’s excellent squad. The Capitals are going to attack, attack, attack and attack some more. They’re going to try to outscore you and more often than not they’re going to succeed. With all of their talent, it would certainly be a surprise to most observers if they didn’t repeat as Southeast Division Champions this season.
However, their playoff prospects don’t look any better than last season unless they make some improvements on the blue line. Despite the inadequacies on their blue line, Washington is still a very serious Stanley Cup contender but in the tighter checking world of playoff hockey, Washington’s roster is woefully inadequate at shutting down opposing scorers. If their goaltending and defensive questions continue then they’re unlikely to get past Pittsburgh or Boston. Expect the Capitals to fall short in the second round again this season and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Pittsburgh was the team to eliminate them for the 7 th time in the past two decades.
By Matt Baxendall
DFN Sports & ProHockey-fans.com Staff Writer