Washington Capitals: 5 Keys to a Fast Start After Olympic Break

Ryan DavenportContributor IFebruary 25, 2014

Washington Capitals: 5 Keys to a Fast Start After Olympic Break

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    The 2014 Olympics weren't kind to the members of the Washington Capitals, as each of the five participants returned to D.C. without much to be happy about from their time in Sochi.

    Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson earned silver medals as members of Team Sweden, but neither can possibly be too pleased with how the tournament finished up. Meanwhile, Alex Ovechkin, Martin Erat and John Carlson all left Russia without any hardware.

    Now, the Capitals will have to find a way to gather themselves for the final push for the postseason, because, as of now, Adam Oates' club sits three spots outside of the final wild-card berth in the East and cannot afford to start off slowly.

    Heading into the most critical portion of Washington's schedule, here's what the Caps need to do in order to start things off the right way.

No Punishment for Backstrom

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    The end of the Olympic hockey tournament couldn't have gone any worse for Backstrom, as the Capitals star was ruled out of Sunday's gold-medal tilt against Canada for testing positive for a banned substance.

    By all accounts, the substance was an ingredient in an allergy medication Backstrom's taken for the last seven years, so it doesn't sound as if the 26-year-old pivot will face any further discipline from the NHL.

    Obviously, if Backstrom were forced to miss any time, it'd be a huge blow to the Caps' postseason chances, because, as by far the team's most gifted passer and setup man, missing a catalyst as productive as the one-time 100-point man would leave a huge hole in the lineup.

    He performed well as Sweden's No. 1 center in Sochi, and Washington needs him to continue to play at that level in order to find success down the stretch.

Better Goaltending

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    The Capitals haven't received particularly strong play from supposed No. 1 stopper Braden Holtby, which is why Michal Neuvirth and Philipp Grubauer have each held the starting job for brief stretches.

    Washington has dealt with a revolving door in the crease over the last decade, and general manager George McPhee thought he'd found his long-term answer in Holtby, but he'll have to reconsider that notion.

    At 24, Holtby can be forgiven for struggling with consistency, as many young goaltenders do, but with his team in the midst of an absolute dogfight to get a playoff spot under wraps, he simply can't afford too many mediocre outings.

    He's got the worst stats of any of the three Capitals netminders this season, so if he can't turn things around, one has to wonder if Neuvirth will get the majority of the starts.

Healthy Green and Grabovski

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    As two of Washington's best players, Mike Green and Mikhail Grabovski absolutely have to be at full health in order for the Caps to hold their own against the Penguins, Rangers, Flyers and the rest of the Metropolitan Division.

    Green, with all due respect to Carlson, is the team's best option on the power play, and he's still among the game's most dynamic rearguards, so Washington's always a much more dangerous offensive team when he's in the fold.

    And in Grabovski, the Caps finally have a quality No. 2 center who has proven to be more than capable of providing valuable secondary scoring while remaining responsible in his own end.

    Both have struggled with injuries recently, but according to The Washington Post's Katie Carrera, the pair have returned to their usual spots within the lineup, so hopefully, they'll be back for the Caps' clash with Florida on Thursday.

No Olympic Hangover for Ovechkin

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    In 2009-10, Ovechkin's play declined rapidly following Russia's immensely disappointing exit against Canada at the 2010 Olympics, so Oates and McPhee have to be praying that the same doesn't happen following yet another Russian disaster, on home ice no less.

    He's been by far Washington's most dangerous weapon (despite his miserable plus/minus), and without any other consistent snipers on the roster, this team simply can't afford to have their captain go through another lengthy slump.

    Ovechkin's 40 goals are by far tops in the league as of now, and he'll have to continue to score at a torrid pace for this team to find a way into the postseason.

Special Teams

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    When the Capitals are playing well and piling up wins, the team's power-play efficiency is usually a big reason why.

    Early in the season, Washington boasted the game's best unit, but inconsistency (particularly during that seven-game losing streak in January) has the Caps at fifth in the league with the man advantage for now.

    However, an even more pressing concern is Washington's penalty kill, which entered the Olympic break at 17th in the league and 10th in the Eastern Conference. That just isn't good enough.

    Sure, the absences of Green and Grabovski haven't helped, but overall, this team has been a disappointment defensively in all situations.

    Ovechkin, Backstrom and the rest of the Caps' top weapons can score all they want, but giving up nearly three goals a game (22nd in the NHL) is a recipe for disaster, and the porous penalty kill certainly hasn't been helping.