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Washington Capitals: 4 Reasons They Will Reclaim Their Spot Atop the Southeast

Dave UngarCorrespondent IIIJanuary 6, 2017

Washington Capitals: 4 Reasons They Will Reclaim Their Spot Atop the Southeast

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    After being dethroned by the Florida Panthers for the Southeast division title a year ago, the Washington Capitals will reclaim their throne this season.

    Assuming, of course, that there is a season.

    Now you may feel as though I have made a somewhat bold statement predicting the Caps to reclaim the Southeast division as their own. After all, the Southeast division looks to be more competitive than ever this season.

    The Carolina Hurricanes have retooled and revamped, adding Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin to the ranks.

    The Tampa Bay Lightning added Matt Carle to the defense and brought in Anders Lindback as a new goalie in the hopes that they will improve a defense that ranked dead last in the NHL a year ago, as far as goals allowed are concerned.

    The Winnipeg Jets added Olli Jokinen to the offense and he, along with Evander Kane, should make the Jets immediately better.

    As for the defending division champion Florida Panthers, they lost Jason Garrison but added Filip Kuba, so that could be considered a wash.

    So why is it that the Caps will recapture the Southeast division this year? Why not the Canes with all that new offensive firepower, or the seemingly more balanced Lightning, or the up-and-coming Jets or the defending champion Panthers?

    Why the Caps?

    Here are four reasons why.

1. They Can Still Dominate on Offense

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    Offensively, the Caps match up with any of the other teams in the Southeast division. When you have someone by the name of Alexander Ovechkin playing for you, you can pretty much match offensive firepower with the best of them.

    Yes, we all know that Ovi’s numbers have been down the past couple of years.

    But on any given night, he can still pull out all the stops and show why he is one of the five best players on the planet. There is a lot of pressure on Ovi this season to silence his critics and to show the world that, in fact, he can lead the Caps to a Stanley Cup championship.

    But the Caps have not been a one man show for the past two seasons. As Ovechkin's numbers have declined, his teammates have had to learn to adapt and, to a greater extent, step up and produce.

    This is what makes the Caps a formidable offensive threat.

    They have playmakers and they have depth. No, they are not as loaded as some teams are as to either factor. But they have enough of both to enable them to still be considered one of the best offensive teams in the Southeast.

    If you are looking for playmakers, look no further than Nicklas Backstrom. As we saw last season, when Backstrom missed 40 games due to injury, the Caps are not the same team without Backstrom in the lineup.

    Or how about Jason Chimera, who plays a brand of hockey that is entertaining, energetic and contagious. Oh, and he had his best season ever last year by scoring 20 goals and logging 19 assists.

    As for depth, the Caps may have solved part of their deficiencies in this area by their acquisition of Mike Ribeiro. The hope is that Ribeiro will be able to step in and and be the second line center the Caps have been searching for the past three years.

    If Ribeiro succeeds here, then it creates all sorts of possibilities and flexibility for players like Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson, Mathieu Perreault, Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and Jason Chimera.

    It is very easy to look at the additions the Hurricanes made, particularly with Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin, and just declare them the best offensive team in the Southeast.

    Or you can look at the potent Lightning squad with players like Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Ryan Malone and Vincent Lecavalier, and easily think the Caps are a notch below them.

    But consider this: The Caps ranked 14th in the NHL a year ago in goals scored (218)—and this was with Dale Hunter behind the bench, Backstrom on the shelf for 40 games, Ovechkin struggling and Alexander Semin also having a rough go of it.

    Bring in Adam Oates, a refocused Ovechkin, a healthy Backstrom and Ribeiro, in the last year of his contract, and it is not ludicrous to suggest that the Caps could increase their goal production by at least 25 goals.

    That would give them 243 and would have tied them for fourth in the NHL a season ago.

    It might take an effort like that for the Caps to win the Southeast—but they have all the pieces in place to pull it off.

2. Defense Wins Championships

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    For people who have only been following the Caps since Alex Ovechkin came to town, the words "Caps" and "defense" may not seem too compatible.

    That is understandable.

    The Caps have been known as an offensive powerhouse the past few years—a team more content to outgun you than it cared about playing tight, checking and physical defense.

    That changed radically during the playoffs though and anyone who watched a handful of Caps playoff games last season knows exactly what I mean.

    There are lots of people out there who feel that the Caps shift to a defensive focused team was something born out of necessity and that, particularly with Adam Oates as coach, the team will revert to their offense first, ask questions later, philosophy.

    I disagree with this.

    The Caps have been down that road before and, to steal a line from The Matrix, they know exactly where it leads. It is a road that leads to early exits, shocking upsets and bitter disappointments.

    On the other hand, the Caps know what they accomplished last season with a defensive focused strategy. Obviously, some changes need to be made and things need to be tweaked. Still, I expect to see the Caps put a greater emphasis on the defensive side of the puck this season.

    The Caps now also have the personnel in place, who have also now gained the experience necessary to implement this sort of strategy.

    The Caps still have Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Mike Green. But all three men grew by leaps and bounds during the playoff run last season—Green in particular. Green had always been known for his laser beam of a shot, but his defensive skills were somewhat lacking.

    In the 2012 playoffs though, Green became a tough shot-blocker who made the opposition work for any traction it gained.

    If you take a look at the other teams in the Southeast, the Lightning and Panthers stand out as having taken the steps to bolster their defense. But can Matt Carle and Sami Salo really make that much difference to a terrible Lightning defense?

    Can Filip Kuba adequately fill the role that Jason Garrison held for the Panthers last year?

    The Caps have the deepest of the defenses in the Southeast and one that has learned how to win hockey games by playing defense.

    It is that sort of defensive effort that will carry the Caps back to the top of the Southeast division.

3. Depth Between the Pipes

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    One area that has me rather excited about the Caps chances is in net.

    Look at the great playoffs Braden Holtby had.

    The Caps rookie net-minder, called into action due to injuries sustained to the starting two goalies, showed the world what nerves of steel are all about as he beat Tim Thomas and the Boston Bruins and then pushed Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers to the very limit.

    Holtby is the consensus pick to be the Caps No. 1 goalie heading into the season.

    Backing him up will be Michal Neuvirth, a very promising and capable young goalie who also had a very good playoff run two seasons ago.

    There are not too many teams out there that can claim their two goalies have led the team to the Eastern Conference semifinals in consecutive years. If Holtby and Neuvirth can both play well, it would be huge for the Caps who can then really focus on keeping their goalies fresh, injury-free and ready to play.

    Most of the other teams in the Southeast division lack that kind of depth in goal.

    The Hurricanes might very well be the exception.

    The Canes have Cam Ward in net. Unlike the other goalies in the division, Ward has won a Stanley Cup and he could very well be the best goalie in the Southeast.

    Backing up Ward will be Brian Boucher.  Boucher has not won a Cup, but he has been in the NHL since the 1999-2000 season and has played in 43 playoff games.

    The Caps' tandem has the youth; the Canes' has the experience. It is the recurrent yin and yang we see so often in sports and it usually creates for some compelling moments.

    The other teams in the Southeast division don't really have this sort of depth.

    The Lightning had to trade for Anders Lindback, but Lindback played in only 16 games last season. Backing him up is Mathieu Garon.

    The Panthers have Jose Theodore, who, as any Caps fan knows, can run hot or cold. The Panthers also have Scott Clemmensen, who played well for the Panthers in the playoff series against the Devils last spring, with a 2.34 goals against average and a .920 save percentage.

    But it was not enough as the Panthers fell to the Devils.

    The Jets have Ondrej Pavelec, who is a very good goalie and seemingly getting better. Backing him up though will be Al Montoya or Mark Dekanich so there will be some question marks there.

    The point of all this is that with Holtby and Neuvirth, the Caps should be able to use both men equally and, in so doing, they can prevent one or the other from getting too fatigued.

    Using both guys equally might also prevent injuries and that will only help the Caps long-term chances to reclaim the top spot in the Southeast.

4. Being the Hunter and Not the Hunted

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    Caps fans who lament the fact that the team has still failed to capture the elusive Stanley Cup also lose sight of what the team has accomplished. One of those accomplishments was winning the Southeast division title four years in a row.

    That is quite a feat.

    Four division titles in a row.

    Yes, the Southeast division has been the NHL's equivalent of the NFC West. But no team in the NFC West was able to win the division four years in a row, while the Caps were doing the same in the NHL.

    But one has to wonder if, like their fans, the Caps basically considered winning the Southeast to be a foregone conclusion. Did they take it for granted last season?

    It sure seemed that way at times.

    The end result was the Caps being dethroned as division champions by the Florida Panthers.

    But there is a silver lining to this.

    For the first time in four years, the Caps get to be the hunter again. After spending the past four seasons with a bullseye on their backs, it is the Caps who now get to go on the attack, while the Panthers have to play with the pressure of defending the divisional championship.

    It is often said that defending a title is more difficult than winning it in the first place. The Caps have the unique experience of having done both.

    As far as the Southeast division is concerned, the Caps may find themselves hungry to regain that title and, at a minimum, secure the No. 3 seed in the playoffs. While home ice advantage usually does not count for much in the playoffs, and while the Caps track record in home-ice, Game 7, situations has not been too good, having to win a Game 7 on the road, twice, was a bit much to ask of anyone.

    For the Caps, they have now seen what a tough task it is to try and run the table to the Stanley Cup as the No. 7 seed.

    I suspect they will be extra motivated to reclaim the Southeast division crown and take the easier of the two roads.

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