What Does Washington's Hot Start Mean for Late Spring

Alan ZlotorzynskiCorrespondent IIIOctober 26, 2011

What Does Washington's Hot Start Mean for Late Spring

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    Ho Hum, the Washington Capitals are once again one of, if not the best team in the National Hockey League. During the regular season that is. 

    With a 7-0 franchise best start, the Capitals are without a doubt playing the best hockey in the NHL.

    I am a huge Caps fan going back to the days when Washington's appearance in the postseason was considered a long shot. I can remember when the Capitals were considered an upstart franchise looking for their first postseason win. I remember the losing days prior to Bryan Murray and David Poile's arrival. Like you, I suffered through the agony of losing seven times to the Penguins in the postseason, only after leading most of those series.

    I've watched three generations of players blow numerous 3-1 playoff series leads and lose to teams in the playoffs that Washington finished 15 and 20 points better than during the regular season.

    I tell you that because I think it is only fair that a true diehard, rocking-the-red-Caps fan be able to ask the following question. What does the best start in the 36-year history of the franchise mean for a deeper run in the postseason?

    The 7-0 start is great, and certainly, one way to keep fans interested in the regular season. However, haven't we seen from Alex Ovechkin and company from October through the first week in April before? The Capitals have averaged 112 points over the past three seasons only to find new and even more excruciating ways to lose in the playoffs. 

    The current regime was the first No.1 seed in NHL history to lose a playoff series to a No. 8 seed after leading three games to one. Last season, Washington became the first No. 1 seed to be swept in the second round of the playoffs.

    Since 2007, they have lost not one, not two, but three Game 7's on home ice and simply looked horrible at times when it mattered most in the spring. If any team deserves "the but" part of a statement, it is the Washington Capitals.

    The following stat is the perfect example of that statement.

    Since taking over behind the bench on November 23, 2007, head coach Bruce Boudreau owns the highest winning percentage (.685) of any head coach in the NHL, but the No. 3 (Mike Babcock Detroit),  No. 4 (Dan Bylsma Pittsburgh) and No. 5 (Joel Quenville Chicago) coaches on the list have all won Stanley Cups.

    Only Todd McClellan, who in No. 2 on the list, and coaches the Western Conference version of the Capitals, the San Jose Sharks, has failed to win one as well.

    After the past four years, I will say this for the Caps, only a start like this could prevent their fans from wanting to hibernate through the winter and wake up once the playoffs start.

    So, how is this different?  How is this year’s team finally going to carry regular-season success into the playoffs?  

    Here are the reasons the Caps should make history this year.

Depth, Depth and More Depth

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    Fourteen different Capitals recorded a point during the Washington's 7-1 win over the mighty Detroit Red Wings, and all four lines were involved in even-strength scoring on the night. Five Capitals had a multi-point evening.

    On the season, only Jay Beagle, who is still getting up off the ice, and DJ King, who has played a total of seven minutes, has failed to score a point.

    The Capitals watched the Tampa Bay Lightning's third and fourth line terribly outplay the Caps entire team during their sweep over Washington in the playoffs last year. The organization vowed they would not let it happen again.

    They also vowed that their third and fourth lines would be the lines outplaying the opposition, and so far this season, that is exactly what has happened.

    In wins over two teams that may predict will meet in this year's Stanley Cup Finals, the Caps fourth line of Jeff Halpern, Matt Hendricks and Mathieu Perreault, was nothing short of amazing.

    In the 5-2 win over the Flyers in Philadelphia, Perreault had a goal and an assist and finished plus-two; Hendricks was plus-two, added an assist and three shots while winning all three of his draws; and Halpern was a plus-one and won six of the seven faceoffs he took.

    The grit and corner play has been better than the point production from this group.

    However, in the win over the Red Wings on Saturday, the trio continued to light up the score sheet. Hendricks had two assists, was plus-two and had three good hits with 10-plus minutes of ice time.

    Halpern recorded an assist, won six of his nine faceoffs and finished plus-two. Perreault was the games No. 3 star with two goals. 

    Not to be outdone, the Capitals third line, or the "meat and potatoes line," as head coach Bruce Boudreau refers to them is also playing well. Another offseason acquisition paying immediate dividends is Joel Ward. He has been teamed up with Brooks Laich and the speedy Jason Chimera to make up the hard checking, but surprisingly effective, scoring line. The three of them have combined to score seven goals and 12 points this season.

    From top to bottom, I would be willing to say that the Capitals have never been this deep in the history of the franchise. There is still a lot of hockey to play, but Bruce Boudreau definitely has the third and fourth lines he craved during last year’s playoffs.

All World Goaltending

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    Sure, the Capitals scored seven goals last Saturday vs. Detroit, but that does not mean that their goalie did not make some big plays that younger, or less experienced, goalies may not have. Vokoun clearly kept the Caps out front on Saturday and is perhaps the biggest reason why they are off to their best start in franchise history.

    Vokoun made 32 saves and has six of the Caps seven wins this season, but it was during the second period, when the Red Wings came close to making it a close game that Vokoun made the difference. Detroit had four power plays in less than six minutes; this included not one, but two 5-on-3 chances.

    The Wings cashed in for just one goal, but any other goalie may have allowed the Wings to tie the game.

    Vokoun is 6-0-0, and is off to his best start since the 2005-06 season when he started 7-0-0 for the Nashville Predators. It seems like years ago that Vokoun was being questioned for allowing some soft goals during the Capitals second win of the year against Tampa Bay.

    Vokoun allowed five goals on 28 shots to the Bolts in Caps debut but now has a .944 save percentage and 1.80 goals against average. He has stopped all but 11 of the 198 shots he’s faced so far this season. If you don't know what this means in terms of having a great veteran goalie in net for the playoff, then you're reading the article.

    Like the depth of their lines, the Caps have never been this deep in net. If Vokoun can stay healthy, and backup (yes he is clearly the backup now) Michael Neuvirth delivers quality minutes, allowing Vokoun the proper rest, then it is fair to say that we could be watching this year's Conn Smyth winner backstop the Caps during the 2011-12 season.



The Power Play Also Has Depth

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    The Caps power play was almost five percent better than the second-place team during the 2009-10 season, scoring 79 goals (25.2 percent), which were 23 more than the league average. They also accomplished this feat by having fewer chances.

    However, during their seven-game loss to the Habs in Round 1, the Caps managed just one PP goal in 35 chances. How did this happen? It was simple: the Habs shut down the passing lanes to Ovechkin and outmuscled the Caps in front of the net and in the corners. 

    The power-play drought continued into the 2010-11 season. The Capitals fell to as low as No. 26 in the NHL but finished the season converting 17.5 percent of their extra-man chances, good enough for 16th in the league. Washington only scored 46 goals (22nd) with the extra attacker last year, 33 fewer than in 2009-10 and 39 down from 2008-09.

    Enter Dennis Wideman last season, as well as Roman Hamrlik, Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer this season. While we talked about having depth on the third and fourth line, please know that General manager George McPhee had the power play in mind when he overpaid for Ward, traded for Brouwer and signed Hamrlik.

    Yes, even Hamrlik has advantages with the extra man. Over the past four seasons in Montreal, Hamrlik averaged anywhere from 2:33 on the power play per game (2010-11) to 1:33 (2008-09).

    Have you seen Ward and Brouwer in front of the net during the power play, you almost feel sorry for the opposing goalies, but then you see what happened in the playoffs two years ago and last year, and then you feel a whole lot better.

    I've said all along, it could be as simple as fixing the power play in order to win the Stanley Cup. So far this season, the extra man advantage looks great, and through seven games, is ranked No. 2 in the NHL. 

    How do we know that this unit will perform in the spring, because it has depth at the blue line, and in front of the net, which must be accounted for. The Canadiens shut down Ovie two years ago and took his shot away. Last year, every team did the same thing, and it killed the power play.

    Have you seen Mike Green on the PP this year? Teams don't know if they should commit to him or whomever he's paired with. 

    With no depth, the Caps had no answer. This year, the Caps are second in the NHL (eight goals), and the Great 8 has one marker with the extra man, enough said.

Bruce Boudreau

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    If you are going to call for Bruce Boudreau's head when the Caps are not playing well, then give him credit when they do.

    Boudreau has not missed a beat this year, and from mixing the lines to near perfection, to calling out his superstar, Boudreau has recovered from the sweeping loss that almost cost him his job last year.

    The fifth-year coach was not entirely happy with the Great 8 following the Caps second win of the season vs. Tampa Bay, and said the following during his postgame interview, "I think he’s got a long way to go to get to where he needs to be and should be,” Boudreau said after Ovechkin was a minus-2  “He’s our No. 1 player, but he can be better, there’s no doubt about it.”

    Ovechkin did not comment other than to say, “I think everybody can be better,” However, he was visibly irked by the comments. This was calculated by the man the press calls Gabby. Boudreau picked the perfect spot to employ the tactic, and with a fired up captain, the Caps have not played lackluster hockey since.

    Washington has outscored their opponents 20-6 since the comments after playing in two straight un-Caps like OT games to start the year. They began scoring with the extra man, and stopped, allowing the first goal of the game—two issues which plagued them last year.

    They have beaten both the teams in the Keystone state and delivered a six-goal victory over the Detroit Red Wings.

    Boudreau had some self-examining to do after this past offseason when comments by former Caps player Matt Bradley, brought into question the discipline in Gabby's locker room. Another member of last season’s team, Dave Steckel, now with the Devils, backed the comments.

    Boudreau wasted no time showing who was boss, and now, at least for the moment, all is well within the confines of the Big Phone Booth in D.C. His constant tinkering with the lines, which in seasons past was downright annoying at times, has been a joy to watch this year.

    The once former extra in the 1970's hockey cult movie Slap Shot, is 196-79-39 in 314 regular season NHL games behind the Caps bench. That translates into a 62.4 winning percentage, which is the best among active coaches. You know whets happened in the postseason, and you know what will happen if that trend continues this year. 

    From the looks of it, Boudreau has the control on and off the ice; he needs to deliver the prize that matches his regular season success in Washington. He finally has all of the pieces in place; there can be no more excuses, and Boudreau knows it is time for Gabby to shut up and deliver the hardware.

Does This Fast Start Mean History Will Be Made?

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    Yes it does, but it will not be easy; nothing ever is for this team. There will be bumps along the way, probably a losing streak or two to contend with, but that will only build the character of this team.

    Unlike last year, when Boudreau transitioned the Caps for the playoffs, they are finally somewhere in between two years ago and last season, and that is exactly where they need to be. 

    Washington needs to stay healthy, and that means Mike Green. He is already doubtful for Thursday's game in Edmonton with a sprained ankle.

    Michael Neuvirth, or Braden Holtby, must step up and allow Tomas Vokoun some time off in order for the Caps' veteran netminder to be fresh come spring. Washington can even learn something from last season’s Stanley Cup runner-ups, the Vancouver Canucks

    Vancouver relied too heavily on Roberto Luongo, and come crunch time, he was simply too exhausted.

    Eventually Alex Ovechkin will have to find the score sheet with more regularity, but like his team, somewhere in between two years ago, when he registered 109 points, and last season, where he notched career low 85 points, would also be just fine. 

    The Capitals are clearly the class of the NHL right now and will probably have to prepare to exorcise the many demons of postseasons past come spring. That may include the one that wears black and gold with a bird native to cold weather on the front of their jerseys come playoff time.

    The Capitals own the Penguins over the past two regular seasons. The last time they lost to their rivals in regulation time was March 9, 2008. The Penguins are the second-best team without Sidney Crosby and a part time Evgeni Malkin. However, they will both return, and eventually, the Eastern Conference will come down to these two teams.

    Even with Crosby and Malkin, the Caps are still deeper this season on all four lines, but that will not matter in the spring.

    What will, are the intangibles, and for once, the Capitals seem to have most of them on their side. They have the veteran leadership in the locker room and on the ice. They are tough in front of the net, as well as in the corners. They finally have a world-class proven goalie, and although he does not have extensive playoff experience, Tomas Vokoun is itching to win a Stanley Cup, just ask his contract.

    Washington is now built for a long run. As long as they stay focused, and healthy, the Washington Capitals should finally deliver the nation that rocks the red, their first Stanley Cup.