Washington Capitals: Early-Season Report Card
Roughly three weeks into the 2011-12 NHL Season, the Washington Capitals have established themselves as the most dominant force in the league by reeling off seven consecutive victories to start the year.
Though the Capitals have been a sensational regular-season team for the past four years, this lineup appears to be more balanced and deeper than any other we've seen during Bruce Boudreau's reign as coach.
During the club's two big wins over the perennial powerhouse Red Wings and Flyers, the Caps looked more confident in themselves than in previous years, which is a positive sign for the Washington faithful.
Looking ahead, the Capitals will head out west for a pair of games against Northwest Division teams later this week, with a big test coming on Saturday against the defending Western Conference champion Canucks.
With that in mind, here's a look at how well the Capitals have performed in each area of the rink thus far.
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The big story surrounding the Capitals this offseason was the addition of two-time All-Star netminder Tomas Vokoun, who was signed to a one-year deal in an attempt to add stability in between the pipes.
So far, the move has paid off for Washington, as Vokoun has notched six wins in six appearances, stealing a couple of games for the Caps in the process.
Though his Capitals debut was delayed by Boudreau's decision to start Michal Neuvirth in the team's season opener, Vokoun shook off the cobwebs just in time to win his first start in a shootout over Tampa Bay.
Since then, he's performed remarkably well, giving up just six goals in five games. Until Neuvirth is healthy enough to return to the crease, the 35-year-old Vokoun will play every game, which is why the team's five-day break before Thursday's contest in Edmonton is a welcome sight for the Caps.
In Neuvirth's lone start against Carolina, the second-year goaltender looked good, and he'll definitely see significant time in net once he's ready to return.
Vokoun's first start was shaky, but since then he's been everything the team could ask for. Look for the team to give him some rest when Neuvirth is healthy enough to start.
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Entering the season, there were some big question marks for the Capitals with regards to their blue line.
Would Mike Green return to form? Would Dennis Wideman play like the 50-point man he was in Boston? How would Karl Alzner and John Carlson top their outstanding rookie seasons? Would the addition of Roman Hamrlik pay off in the defensive zone.
Seven games in, Caps fans have to like the answers to the questions above, as Washington's defensive corps has looked better than ever before at both ends of the ice.
Wideman has emerged as a consistent contributor in the offensive zone, posting seven points in seven games. Green has once again looked like the best scoring rearguard in the game, notching three beautiful goals in the process and Hamrlik has been a rock in the defensive zone.
With regards to Alzner and Carlson, the former has looked even better than last season, as he's continued to be the team's top shutdown defenseman, though Carlson hasn't quite hit his stride.
A year ago, Carlson was the team's best offensive threat from the blue line, but that hasn't been the case this season, as he has yet to see time on the power play. With that being said, Carlson and Alzner continue to be the team's most consistent pairing, though, Hamrlik, Green, Wideman and Jeff Schultz have all played exceptionally well in the early going.
The Capitals' defensive corps have been solid from top to bottom so far, and though they've been out-shot in five out of the team's seven games, they're doing a nice job of limiting the opposition's quality scoring opportunities on a nightly basis. After a couple of average outings against Carolina and Tampa Bay, the Caps have enjoyed stellar performances from each member of their rapidly-improving top six.
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The Capitals' vaunted offense has been scoring by the truckload through the first seven games, but more importantly, the team has been getting contributions from all four lines, night in and night out.
In the past, for the Caps to have scored 30 goals in seven games, it usually meant that Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin would have to had put up at least five goals a piece, but that's not the case this season.
Though Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin have been contributing, with 23 points combined, the Caps have scored by committee, which is a very positive sign for Bruce Boudreau's coaching staff.
The third line of Jason Chimera, Brooks Laich and Joel Ward has been the team's most dominant unit in the defensive zone, and they've proved to be more than capable of chipping in offensively as each member of the line has four points thus far.
After Marcus Johansson was scratched from the lineup for the team's season opener, the second-year pivot has racked up four goals in six games, indicating Boudreau was successful in sending a message to the talented Swede. He's proved to be more than capable of filling the role of second-line center, and his running mates in Semin and Mike Knuble have benefited from his elevated play.
Though the Caps' talent on their top three lines is ultimately what sets them apart from other teams, their fourth line has been everything a coach could hope for, and then some. Jeff Halpern, Mathieu Perreault and Matt Hendricks have all been playing solid defensive hockey, while posting some impressive offensive numbers. Who would have thought that Perreault would be a point-per-game player five games in?
What's even more encouraging than the number of goals the Caps have scored is how they've scored them. While they've had a couple of highlight-reel tallies, the majority of the team's goals have come by crashing the net, creating screens and just generally making life difficult for opposing goalies, which is something the Caps have struggled to do in the past.
The Capitals' offense is firing on all cylinders and getting goals from every corner of the lineup. It's scary to think about how dangerous their offense will be when Ovechkin and Semin heat up, though, it appears the team will be just fine even without a 40-goal season from either of their Russian stars.
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Last year, one of the big stories surrounding the Capitals was the team's constant struggle to score with the man advantage.
This season, the team's power play looks as dangerous as ever, ranking first among all NHL teams with a conversion rate of 29.6 percent.
On 29 opportunities, the Caps have tallied eight goals, including three from Mike Green, who posted just five power play markers in 2010-11. Green himself credits the team's focus on puck and player movement with being the primary reason behind the Caps' early success on the power play.
In Dennis Wideman, Green, Roman Hamrlik and John Carlson, the Capitals have four defensemen capable of playing the point, allowing Alex Ovechkin to work down low. While there's clearly room for improvement, the Caps are getting pucks towards the net much more frequently than last year, which is a positive sign of things to come.
On the defensive side of things, the Caps have some work to do, as the penalty kill has been mediocre at best. Currently sitting 18th in the league after ranking second last season, the Caps have been giving up far too many goals for a team that has a collection of capable killers.
Though it's obviously too early to panic, Jeff Halpern, Brooks Laich, John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Roman Hamrlik headline a group that is far too good to be this average on the kill.
Ultimately, Bruce Boudreau and his staff have to be happy with the vastly improved power play, but the team's penalty kill has to get stingier, as the past has shown that special teams can be a difference maker come playoff time. If the power play continues to be a deadly weapon for the Capitals, they could have five 70-point scorers by season's end.
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No head coach in the National Hockey League entered the 2011-12 season with more pressure on their shoulders than Bruce Boudreau, primarily because no bench boss has the luxury of coaching a lineup blessed with the level of talent and skill that the Capitals possess.
After four straight early postseason exits, this may be Bruce's last chance to show that he's the man to bring the franchise's fist Stanley Cup to D.C. Seven games in, Boudreau's troops are playing with the type of passion and energy that their coach brings to the rink every day, which isn't something a lot of Capitals could say this time last year.
For the first time, Boudreau has demonstrated a willingness to play whoever's performing the best, regardless of their perceived role with the team, which is why both Tomas Vokoun and Marcus Johansson were unhappy campers after the Caps' season opener.
Though it'd be difficult not to win with a group this talented, Boudreau has put together four solid lines and three remarkably effective defensive pairings that display a stunning amount of chemistry for a team that has so many new faces.
To his credit, Boudreau is constantly evaluating his players, which is why outside of Alex Ovechkin, virtually every player is interchangeable in Boudreau's eyes.
So far, he's been effective in getting his players to revert back to their high-scoring ways of two years ago, while maintaining composure in their defensive zone.
Boudreau also has the team playing a more playoff-friendly style in the offensive zone, as the Caps are consistently scoring goals by creating havoc in front of their opposition's crease, which will be critical to their success in the postseason.
Boudreau can't really do much more than what he has so far. He's assembled strong lines, and he's pushing all the right buttons with his players, with the exception of his captain. Ovechkin still doesn't look like the player he was two years ago, so it may be that the team's success and Boudreau's fate as head coach could hinge on whether he gets the mercurial Russian to elevate his game.