The Washington Capitals' season kicked off on Sunday with a 4-3 overtime victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, ending a summer of anxiousness from fans and players alike. They had all been waiting for that day. Now that the opener is behind us, we can focus on the season ahead.
This is potentially a defining year for the Capitals. The foursome formerly known as the "young guns" are right in their prime, and from next season onwards, the window of opportunity will begin to grow smaller. The Capitals will go all in this year in their quest for ice hockey's holy grail—the Stanley Cup.
There are 81 games remaining before the playoffs kick in. After that, the Capitals will be a mere 16 wins away. Here are 10 predictions of what we may see from the Capitals this upcoming 2011-2012 season.
Jeff Schultz has only really had one strong season with the Capitals. That was in 2009-10, when he led the league in the plus/minus category.
John Erskine, on the other hand, has emerged as a physical, defensively solid blue-liner for the Caps. As fans have continued to complain about the often inconsistent play of Schultz, Erskine has carved himself a nice niche in their hearts.
He is the only Capitals defenseman who will impose himself physically on a game, and it is important for a team to have that guy. The Capitals love what he brings to the table. It wouldn't be surprising to see him sneak into the top six if Schultz doesn't return to his form of the past.
Swedish forward Mattias Sjögren will inevitably be a key player for the Caps at some point because he brings such a unique combination of skills to the table. You would have a hard time finding a similar player.
He brings great size (6'2", 214 lbs), and with that comes the drive-to-the-net, crash-and-bang, physical style that the Caps seek on their third and fourth lines. At the same time, he has great skill and potential as a playmaker and scorer and has invaluable versatility (can play any forward position).
After a somewhat disappointing training camp, he was sent down to Hershey, where he has already established himself as their second-line center. He will be the first call-up as soon as an injury or suspension affects the bottom two lines, and Washington will find it hard to send him back down.
Mike Green's struggling 2010-11 didn't have as much to do with bad play as it did with the fact that he played most of his 49 games injured. He is ready to bounce back, and he showed that in a big way against the Hurricanes.
Over the past few seasons, Green has been focusing on becoming more of a two-way defenseman, rather than simply an offensive one. That said, his career highs of 31 goals and 76 points show his offensive potential. He appears to be reaching the end of the transitional phase.
He was one of the Caps' best players at both ends of the ice against the 'Canes, and his nickname from the past, "Gameover," proved true once again. Capitals fans should see plenty more of that this season.
The same goes for Swedish top-line center, Nicklas Bäckström. He played much of last season with a broken thumb, and a summer of rehabilitation has served him well. Like Green, he looked like a new player against the Hurricanes, racking up two assists and displaying his new physical side.
He has proved in the past his ability to be a 100-point player, and he has grown to the point where he no longer needs to rely on Alex Ovechkin for a large part of his production. Look for Nicklas Bäckström to return to his top form and be a key player for the Capitals.
When the Capitals traded away Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche, it was with the hope that the team that drafted second overall would again fail. While it is impossible to try to predict anything regarding standings this early in the season, Colorado lost their opener against Detroit, leaving fans hoping it is a sign of things to come. If NHL analysts are correct, it will be.
Varlamov is a good player, with a bright future, but Colorado may have been a little too confident in going through with the trade. They feel they will make the playoffs this season. If they don't, the Capitals will reap the rewards. There are quite a few top quality defensive prospects expected to go early on, and if everything goes to plan for George McPhee and his team, they may be welcoming one of those players to the District next summer.
When the Capitals drafted Evgeny Kuznetsov 26th overall in the 2010 draft, they thought they were getting a highly-skilled forward with top nine potential. It appears they have gotten so much more.
Since he was drafted, "Kuzya" has developed in leaps and bounds. He was one of the very best players at the 2011 World Juniors, leading his team to a gold medal and tore his way onto the KHL scene with 32 points in 44 games. All that said, he was been somewhat covert about his NHL plans.
He always said he would spent two post-draft years in the KHL (this is the second), so Caps fans need not worry, but he has yet to make a commitment about making the move over the Atlantic. McPhee has little worry, and he shouldn't have. Kuznetsov will come. He will be in the opening night lineup next season. Look for him to forge a long-term partnership with fellow youngster Marcus Johansson in the Capitals red.
For those who don't know, Shane Doan is a 34-year-old right winger currently captaining the Phoenix Coyotes. He put up 60 points in 72 games last seasons. He is an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season.
He would be a perfect fit in Washington. He is a heart-and-soul veteran who brings great grit and leadership. He could bring out the best of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Bäckström in the playoffs. Washington have been looking for veteran presences, and you would have a hard time finding any better than Doan.
It wouldn't at all be surprising to see Doan leave the Coyotes in search of one last shot at the Stanley Cup. The Coyotes are rebuilding and will be looking for prospects or picks as a return in any potential deal. That is where the Capitals' two 2012 first-rounders come in. It should be enough to send away your own, holding onto Colorado's. Doan would be more than worth it.
Alexander Semin was the best player on the ice in the opener, with no exceptions. He was effective all over, scoring goals at one end and coming up big on defensive plays at the other. Everything fans have had to complain about in the past appears to be gone.
He has clearly changed over the summer. Couple that with the fact that he looks to finally have a set pair of linemates to build on and develop chemistry with, and you have a very, very dangerous player.
You wouldn't have a hard time arguing that Semin is the most naturally talented player in the league. With career highs of 40 goals and 84 points, he has proved his worth in the past. You would also have an easy time arguing that those numbers aren't the best he can produce. He can be better. This is his year.
The sky is, quite literally, the limit for Alexander Semin in 2011-12.
There is a reason Michal Neuvirth started against Carolina. The fact is that he was the better goalie in training camp and preseason. Tomas Vokoun came in expecting to be named the starter right away, and, while he is a top-notch goalie, didn't put in his strongest efforts.
The goalie affectionately nicknamed "Neuvy" was sparkling, putting up a 1.35 GAA and .949 save percentage, while his veteran countryman posted a bloated 3.26 GAA and .870 save percentage. Neuvirth was fully deserving of a start against the Southeast Division rivals.
Most experts predicted a 70-30 split in terms of games played for the two goalies. I say Neuvy will be the starter by the end of the sason. Vokoun's reaction to being passed over for the opener (criticizing Boudreau and his decision) was not a good sign of things to come. If Neuvirth continues his strong play, the Capitals will run with him.
Admittedly, Alex Ovechkin looked out of sorts in the opener. That said, it was to be expected after he flew over the Atlantic twice over the space of three days.
The Russian phenom will bounce back. He is in better shape than in previous seasons and has shaken off the injuries that have bugged him in the past. His center, Nicklas Bäckström, looked very strong against Carolina, and that can only mean good things for the Great 8.
Everything seems to be falling into place for him. If he hits his stride, he may never look back. Look for him to put up a Hart Trophy caliber season.
We have said the same thing for several seasons now, but this really is the year. The Washington Capitals will win the Stanley Cup.
The group of players the Caps have assembled is unrivaled. On paper, they are the best team in the league. Their problem in the past few years has been a lack of grit and a lack of veteran leaders. That has now been solved.
Their young players are entering their prime, and the players the Caps have brought in are guys that have had success in the postseason before. The players they have know how to win. There are no more excuses for the Caps. This year, it is Stanley Cup or bust.
Follow Jake Ware on Twitter at @JacobWare95