With the 2010-11 NHL preseason wrapped up, most NHL teams are making final adjustments to their rosters, and gearing up for the long season ahead. No team enters the season with the same lofty expectations that hang over the Washington Capitals after being bounced in the first round. The reigning President's Trophy winners have a lot of work ahead, but if the preseason is any indication, this is a hungry team that has the potential to capture the franchise's first Stanley Cup. Here are the top five reasons to believe that this is the year for the Bruce Boudreau's squad.
John Carlson taking a shot against the Calgary Flames in a 2010 contest.
One issue the Capitals have never had (other than in the 2010 Quarterfinals against Montreal), is scoring goals. However, limiting the opposing team's quality scoring chances has been a big issue for the last three seasons. The departures of Joe Corvo, Shaone Morrisonn and Milan Jurcina has opened the door for blue chip defensive prospects John Carlson and Karl Alzner. Carlson lead all 'Caps blueliners in scoring in the 2010 Playoffs, and Alzner has slowly developed into a reliable stay-at-home defenseman. Both will have an impact in their first full season in Washington, and their play could be a determining factor in Washington's level of success this year.
Nicklas Backstrom beats Jaroslav Halak in Game 2 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
Though the 'Caps have been, and will continue to be known as 'Ovechkin's team', Nicklas Backstrom is the catalyst of much of Washington's dangerous offense. Backstrom finished the 2010 season with 101 points, good for fourth in league scoring. More importantly, Backstrom began to shoot the puck more as the season went on, notching his first 30-goal season. His ability to create time and space for Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Washington's attack is one of the driving forces behind Washington's league leading goal totals. Though he doesn't receive the same fanfare that Ovechkin does, his continue improvement could vault him to the top of the scoring and assist leader boards by the end of the season. He isn't the flashiest player on the 'Caps, but he is probably the most consistent among their ultra talented forwards.
Alexander Semin celebrates a goal with Tomas Fleischmann.
Alexander Semin has become one of the most electrifying talents in the NHL, scoring highlight reel goals by the dozen since entering the league full time in 2006-07. After posting 40 goals in the regular season, he laid a goose egg in the post season, though he lead all players in shots on goal. After being signed to a one-year $6 million deal in the Spring, it became apparent that Semin's play this season will be a large determinant of whether he remains in Washington beyond the 2010-11 campaign. Semin is one of the most talented hockey players on the planet, and has the ability to be a game breaker at any moment. At times, he seems to lack motivation on the ice, but that won't be a problem this season. Simply put, if Semin doesn't show up to play in the clutch (also known as the playoffs), he won't be wearing a Capitals uniform this time next year. Semin appears to be a player who wants to be paid like a superstar, so now it's time to play like one, all the time.
German born rookie Michal Neuvirth makes a save in 2010.
With Jose Theodore gone, the Capitals' fate lies with two young netminders, Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov, the starting goaltender for the majority of their last two playoff runs is a talented stopper who has a great deal of big game experience for a 22-year old, and was selected as a backup goaltender for the Russian Olympic team. Neuvirth has been a clutch goaltender as well, though on a smaller scale. He captured two straight Calder Cups with Hershey, winning Playoff MVP along the way in 2009, and obviously has nothing left to prove at the AHL level. With the departure of Theodore, the two youngsters can operate in a platoon, giving the Capitals two viable options in net. And unlike Theodore, each seems to be able to handle the pressure of playing in net for Washington.
Capitals' captain Alexander Ovechkin after Game 2 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
It's unlikely that any NHL player received more criticism during the 2010 calendar year than Alexander Ovechkin. First his Russian squad fell in the Quarterfinals at the Olympics, then his 'Caps were upset in the first round of the playoffs after a record setting regular season for the team. Ovechkin, as the captain, shoulders a great deal of pressure, but it's nothing he can't handle. After five seasons in the league, the 2010 campaign was the first in which he experienced some real growing pains. He was vilified by both the media and the league (as they handed him a two-game suspension), and clearly was not at his best by the end of the season.
However, Ovechkin is the most dangerous offensive player in the league, and he is hungry. He has around him what may be the most talented cast of players that he will ever have, and this is his year to prove his critics wrong. After an injury plagued season, he is healthy, and is eager to put last season behind him. A full season of playing with Knuble and Backstrom will likely increase his goal totals, but more importantly, he is learning to use his teammates more effectively. Ovechkin and the rest of the 'Caps are too good to fall apart like they did this year, and it's up to the captain to lead by example.