Washington Capitals: 5 Keys to Remaining Unbeaten Through the Weekend
After storming out of the gates with the best start in franchise history, the Washington Capitals look to build on their seven-game unbeaten streak with a pair of matchups against Western Canadian foes over the next three days.
With each game, it will become increasingly difficult for the Caps to remain unbeaten, as they've clearly established themselves as the team to beat, meaning there will be more incentive for their opponents.
Tonight's game against Edmonton, for example, presents the young Oilers with a chance to demonstrate their mettle early in the season. On Saturday, the Vancouver Canucks, who have struggled early on, will be granted the opportunity to show they're still a front-runner for the 2012 Stanley Cup when they take on a potential Cup finalist on home ice.
Meanwhile, the Capitals, who have thoroughly dominated their last two opponents by a combined score of 12-3, have to believe that if they continue to play at the level they've shown they're capable of, there's a good chance they'll emerge from the weekend without a blemish on their record.
With that in mind, here are five keys to the Capitals' success in remaining unbeaten through the weekend.
5. An Increase in Production from the Russians
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Though Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin have posted a combined 13 points through the Capitals' first seven games, neither has been overwhelmingly productive thus far.
Ovechkin has goals in just two of the Caps' seven wins and is actually behind linemate Nicklas Backstrom in shots, which is rare for a player who has led the league in shots in each of his six NHL seasons.
The fact that the Capitals managed to score seven goals against Detroit on Saturday without even one from Ovechkin is a testament to the contributions the team has received from each of their four lines, but at some point Washington will need their captain to step up his production.
The same goes for Semin, the team's other Russian scoring machine, who has just two goals heading into Thursday's game against Edmonton. Semin is certainly not paid $6.7 million for his defensive abilities, and if the team hopes to continue to win, he'll have to light the lamp more often.
Obviously the Capitals have enough offense to periodically compensate for a lack of offense from their top two goal-scoring threats, but at the same time, these two are counted upon to score more often than they have so far.
4. A Healthy Michal Neuvirth
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Tomas Vokoun's sterling play has been one of the biggest stories surrounding the Capitals' seven-game unbeaten streak, as he was recently named one of the NHL's three stars of the week after posting impressive wins over Detroit and Philadelphia.
However, at age 35, Vokoun will not be able to play every game, at least not at the level that he's been performing at of late.
That's where his 23-year-old understudy Michal Neuvirth comes in. After nursing a lower-body injury for the last two weeks, the Caps need Neuvirth to shoulder some of the load, possibly in the form of a start against either the Oilers of Canucks over the course of the next three days.
Though Vokoun and the Capitals have had five days of rest since putting on a clinic against the Red Wings on Saturday, Neuvirth's health will be critical to the team's success down the stretch.
As the last two Stanley Cup champions have shown us, having two capable netminders is important for sustaining success for long stretches of time, especially late in the season.
3. Continued Success on the Power Play
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One of the most noticeable differences between last year's edition of the Capitals and this year's squad is the drastically improved power play, which is a welcome sight for the team's coaching staff and management team.
After struggling badly in 2010-11, the Capitals revamped their power play units, and the early returns have been impressive, as the team currently boasts the third best conversion rate in the league and has yet to give up a short-handed goal.
Washington's drastic improvement with the man advantage is due in large part to the fact that the team is generating more scoring opportunities by moving the puck more quickly. Both of Mike Green's power play tallies against Detroit were products of slick puck movement along the boards down low, followed by pinpoint passes to the offensive defenseman, who had snuck in from the point.
Going forward, if the Caps hope to continue piling up goals on the power play, they'll need to keep crowding the crease, making life more difficult for opposing goaltenders and defensemen.
2. A Healthy Blue Line
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As the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs showed, the Washington Capitals' success depends greatly upon the ability of their defensemen to stay out of the sick bay and in the lineup.
When Mike Green went down with an injury during the team's second-round series against Tampa Bay, he joined Dennis Wideman and Tom Poti on the injured reserve, leaving the Capitals with a paper-thin blue line for the most critical part of the year.
Though the Capitals today boast one of the most formidable defensive corps in the league, they're always one injury away from being much less effective, as their depth outside of the top six isn't anything to feel too confident about.
For example, Mike Green is expected to miss tonight's game in Edmonton with a lower-body injury, meaning Sean Collins will pair up with Jeff Schultz to form the team's third defensive unit. While Collins may be a serviceable third-pairing defenseman on an average team, the Capitals simply cannot afford to be without any of their top-five defensemen.
John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Roman Hamrlik, Wideman and Green all play big roles with the Caps, and there aren't any players outside of the team's top six that can effectively replace them.
For the Capitals to continue to win this consistently, they'll need all of their horses on the blue line to remain healthy, because they aren't blessed with the same level of depth that they are in goal or up front.
1. Consistency from the Bottom Three Lines
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Last season, the Capitals had just three players break the 50-point barrier, though they had seven do so in 2009-10. This year, the Caps have eight skaters with at least five points through the first seven games, which is a big reason behind why Washington has been able to overpower every team it's faced thus far.
Obviously, everyone expects Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom to produce big offensive numbers, but if the Capitals continue to receive contributions of this magnitude from the other nine forwards on a regular basis, they'll be virtually impossible to defeat.
So far, the team's third line of Brooks Laich, Jason Chimera and Joel Ward has been the Caps' best overall forward unit, as they've done their job defensively while producing much bigger numbers than what's expected of them.
Even more surprising than that line has been the offensive production of the fourth line, as Matt Hendrick, Jeff Halpern and Mathieu Perreault have combined for 10 points in seven games, highlighted by Perreault's two-goal outing against Detroit.
In addition to those two units, the play of the team's second scoring line, which features Semin, Mike Knuble and Marcus Johansson, will go along way toward helping the Caps win on a nightly basis.
Having two units that can score regularly is typical of a contending team, but being able to roll four lines that can score on any given shift is a luxury that few teams in recent NHL history have been blessed with.