Washington Capitals: 7 Reasons Their Stanley Cup Window Is Just Opening

Ryan DavenportContributor IJune 7, 2012

Washington Capitals: 7 Reasons Their Stanley Cup Window Is Just Opening

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    Heading into the 2011-12 NHL season, the Washington Capitals were considered by many to be a Stanley Cup contender.  During the regular season, the Caps looked like a collection of highly paid players who didn't mesh well together. They found themselves in danger of missing the postseason for the first time since 2006-07.  

    Despite their struggles from September to April, Washington pulled off one of the greatest upsets in franchise history as the Caps dispatched the defending Stanley Cup champions in dramatic fashion.  

    For Capitals fans, the opening round triumph over Boston was a hefty consolation prize after the team underperformed so badly during the regular season, but the honeymoon didn't last long,  

    Though eliminating the Bruins was an impressive accomplishment for a team that was all but left for dead by the rest of the league, the Caps once again failed to advance to the Conference Finals, so the season will be regarded as a failure in many respects.  

    That being said, there are reasons for Washingtonians to be optimistic about the Caps' future. The organization boasts a solid core of veterans signed for the long haul and a group of young talents who appear to be on the verge of stardom.  

    Although many Caps fans will come away from the 2011-12 NHL campaign with the bitter taste of postseason disappointment lingering, here are seven reasons why the fan base should have faith in the team's chances of winning a Stanley Cup. 

Nicklas Backstrom's Return

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    Concussions have become an epidemic in the NHL, and many marquee stars have had their careers ended due to traumatic head injuries.  

    After taking a vicious elbow from Calgary's Rene Bourque, Nicklas Backstrom's future with the Capitals was briefly put on hold, as the 24-year-old star missed 40 games with post-concussion syndrome.  

    At the time of the injury, Backstrom had been Washington's most valuable player by a long shot (with no disrespect to Dennis Wideman or Jason Chimera), and appeared to have regained the confidence that made him a 100-point scorer in 2009-10.  

    Though Backstrom's four regular season games weren't overly impressive, he proved his worth during the Playoffs, as he was the Caps' second leading scorer with eight points in 14 games.  

    What's even more encouraging is that Backstrom demonstrated his ability to be the team's catalyst on the power play, and even displayed an aggressiveness rarely seen by the usually reserved Swede.   

The Carlzner Factor

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    Over the course of the last two seasons, John Carlson and Karl Alzner have emerged as the Caps' top defensive pairing.  

    At 22, Carlson is only beginning to scratch the surface of his potential as an NHL defenseman, and appears poised to become one of the league's top puck-moving defensemen within the next couple of seasons.  

    The perfect foil to Carlson's offensive-minded game, Alzner is a prototypical stay-at-home defenseman.  Though just 23, the Burnaby, British Columbia native has cemented his status as the team's shutdown rearguard for the present and future.  

    Not many teams have a young pairing as promising as the unit affectionately referred to as "Carlzner".  The two complement each other nicely, and each possesses the potential to blossom into stars in their own right.  

The Postseason Effort Level

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    Though the Caps fell short in the Eastern Conference Semifinals once again, there was something different about the way the team lost.  

    Against the Penguins in 2009, they got flattened in Game Seven on home ice.  Last spring, Washington made a quick exit in the form of a sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.  

    This year, as underdogs for the the first time in four years, the Caps battled the top-seeded Rangers until the bitter end, and at times looked like a team on a date with destiny.  

    Before the Semifinals, the Caps took on the scrappy yet skilled Bruins, who showed why they were the defending champions.  In defeating Boston, Washington demonstrated an ability to win a series in which they faced adversity.  

    Sure, the series wins in '09 and '11 against the Rangers were thrilling (especially considering the level of success of D.C.'s other teams), but the seven-game classic against the Bruins showed that this group has some fight in them.  

The Team's Response in the Face of Adversity

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    Going into the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, of all the 16 teams in the postseason pool, Washington had easily the most unsettling situation in between the pipes, as neither' of the Caps' top two goaltenders were healthy to play.   

    Nonetheless, the Capitals persevered, and the herculean performance of rookie Braden Holtby, combined with a consummate team effort, carried the club to within a goal of the Eastern Conference Finals.   

    Beyond the late-season goaltending fiasco, the Caps endured through a season that featured a coaching change, an injury to the team's top center and prolonged scoring droughts.  

    In the previous three seasons, Washington's regular season success came with relative ease, and they enjoyed favorable opening round match-ups, complete with home ice advantage.  

    Even without those luxuries, the Caps scratched and clawed their way into the Playoffs in the final week of the season, and won a Game Seven on the road to unseat the defending champs.  

    Unlike previous Capitals teams, this squad overcame every obstacle that was thrown its way, and that sort of mettle will serve the players well. 

The Sandpaper

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    During the Bruce Boudreau era, the Capitals were regarded as a team that had all the skill in the world, but not enough grit to get the job done at the most important time of the year.  

    Nowadays, the Caps lay claim to a collection of tough, versatile forwards who have the speed and strength to make life difficult for opposing defensemen.

    As the series against Boston showed, Washington now has a solid group of two-way forwards who are capable of out-muscling even the toughest of opponents.  

    Though they fell short this year, the cupboards are stocked with gritty offensive players who are now better suited for the rigors of postseason hockey.  

The Maturation of Alex Ovechkin

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    The 2011-12 regular season was statistically the most trying of Alex Ovechkin's career, as the superstar failed to hit the 40-goal mark for the second year in a row, and tallied a career-low 65 points.  

    In addition, the Capitals' captain, once a lock to be a point-per-game player during the postseason, notched just nine points in 14 playoff games.  

    Despite all this, the Russian dynamo did show signs of maturation, both on and off the ice.  For the first time, Ovechkin appeared to accept the notion that the Caps may not always benefit from having him on the ice, and he became something of a cheerleader during games in which he saw more time on the bench than usual.  

    Now, it's unlikely that the Caps' next coach will limit Ovechkin's ice time to the same extent that Dale Hunter did at times, but it's encouraging to see that the team's star is fully invested in winning games, even if it means sacrificing his own individual production.  

Braden Holtby

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    For the last four years, the Caps have entered the postseason with unstable situations in between the pipes.  

    In 2009 and 2010, former Hart Trophy winner Jose Theodore was yanked by the end of the second game of the Caps' opening round series in favor of Semyon Varlamov, and though the young Russian played relatively well, he was out-dueled by Marc-Andre Fleury and Jaroslav Halak in successive years.  

    Last year, Michal Neuvirth was given the opportunity to start every one of the Caps' nine playoff games, but he wasn't the answer either.  

    This spring, Caps fans' prayers were answered when Braden Holtby, a largely unknown rookie, stole the show and outplayed defending Conn Smythe Trophy winner Tim Thomas in round one before going save-for-save with a Vezina Trophy candidate in King Henrik in round two.  

    Holtby's emergence as a legitimate No. 1 goaltender is a big reason for Washingtonians to believe in this team, because the kid has the composure, skill and mettle to be a star in this league.  

    No, he didn't pull a Ken Dryden and win the Cup as a rookie, but Holtby displayed an ability to carry the team when needed, which isn't a luxury the Caps have had since the heyday of Olaf Kolzig.