Facing off with the Caps

Photos by Nicholas Donner

There is no doubt that the Washington Capitals have enjoyed tremendous regular season success the past few seasons. Their dominance from October through early April has been overshadowed, however, by colossal failures in the playoffs. Grand aspirations to hoist the Stanley Cup in June have turned into shocking early round exits, leaving the team deflated and speechless.

Nonetheless, general manager George McPhee again ignored calls from some of the fanbase to make major changes. He retained Bruce Boudreau, the plucky head coach who is immensely popular among the players. Core players like Mike Green, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom will once again join the team’s centerpiece, Alex Ovechkin, in a quest to achieve that which has eluded the club in recent years – playoff success.

But the supporting cast is markedly different. Key secondary players like Matt Bradley, Eric Fehr and Boyd Gordon were not retained. Ditto for Jason Arnott, who was brought in at last season’s trade deadline.

Replacing them are forwards Troy Brouwer, a sizable winger who threw the fifth most hits in the league last season with the Chicago Blackhawks, Joel Ward, a checking wing who was impressive in the playoffs with the Nashville Predators, and Jeff Halpern, a Potomac, MD native who is entering his second stint with the Caps.

On the blueline, veteran Roman Hamrlik was signed to add depth and insurance in case Tom Poti cannot return from a severe groin injury that threatens his career.

Of all the new faces though, none is important to the team’s chances than new goaltender Tomas Vokoun. The 35 year-old annually is among the league leaders in save percentage and goals against average, and is widely regarded as one of the better and savvier netminders in the NHL.

“I think he’s really respected around the league, and we certainly saw a lot of him when he played for Florida,” said Mike Knuble, who was among several Capital players to sit down with On Tap and discuss playing for Washington and the expectations for this season. “I think Tomas is playing for a lot.”

Indeed, Vokoun was the best free agent goalie on the market this summer but contract offers were thin. Even McPhee was reportedly shocked to discover he could get the veteran for $1.5 million this year, a great price for a player of Vokoun’s stature.

“We got him for a bargain basement price,” Knuble said. “I’m sure he could have gone to a couple of places, but he chose us.”

It’s not that goaltending was the sole reason why the team has flamed out in the playoffs. Young keepers Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov have performed admirably. The team has just lacked a certain something that’s hard to put a finger on. Perhaps it’s needed more grit and character. Or maybe it’s a backstopper like Vokoun who will finally get them over the hump.

Whatever it is, experts and fans alike felt the Caps have had the horses to go deep into the playoffs. But for some reason the team has not been able to go on a big tear and reach the late rounds, much less the Cup Finals. They handily beat the Rangers this past spring only to be swept in the second round by the surprising Tampa Bay Lightning. The year prior, they ignominiously became the first number one seed to lose a 3-1 series lead in the playoffs to a number eight seed (the Montreal Canadiens). And in 2009, they lost the deciding game seven in the Eastern Conference finals in spectacular fashion, 6-2, to their most hated rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Talk about ouch.

“You get annoyed and angry because you want to be there in the playoffs,” said pesky winger Matt Hendricks, who is entering his second season with the club. “Players have to realize we have a great opportunity with the personnel we have. It’s not always going to be – ‘wait until next year.’”

There is no reason to believe the Capitals won’t be one of the NHL’s dominant teams in the regular season. Several media outlets have them pegged for number one overall in the Eastern Conference, and favorites to reach the Cup Finals.

McPhee has drawn wide praise for his offseason moves. In addition to the trade for Brouwer and the free agent signings, he moved Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche for a first and second round pick, making way for Vokoun while ensuring the team continues to collect young talent through the draft.

“We’ve got a good team on paper and they’ve had a lot of success the past couple of years,” said Brouwer, who won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. “So coming over, I knew it was going to be a good team. And the way George McPhee has been building this team, it seems like they’re really going for a Stanley Cup this year, and I’m excited to be a part of it.”

It’s Brouwer’s Cup experience and rough n’ tumble style of play that made McPhee willing to part with a first round pick in this year’s draft to get him.

“I tend to play better when I’m throwing more hits,” Brouwer said. “When I’m being physical, I feel like I’m in the game more. I like to get pucks low, finish checks and create space for other players. I hope it fits well with their style of play.”

Team management is hoping that some of its integral players who had subpar or injury-plagued seasons return form.

Green in particular would like to turn the page on last season and get to work on the new campaign. The defenseman played in just 49 games in 2010-11, reportedly suffering injuries to his knee and shoulder, as well as a couple of concussions.

When healthy, Green is one of the top defensemen in the league, particularly on the offensive side, having scored 73 points in the 2008-09 season, and 76 points in 2009-10.

Green said training camp was intense, but that he’s glad he was able to participate, and is looking forward to getting back in the lineup and helping the power play, which is normally potent but finished in the middle of the pack last season in terms of proficiency (16th overall), as Boudreau focused more on defensive play.

“Our penalty killing was fine last year [second best in the league] because we switched to a more defensive game, but our power play needs to get better,” Green said.

Regarding the second round playoff sweep suffered at the hands of the Lightning this past spring, Green said, “You don’t forget about it. It sticks in your mind.”

Tampa Bay will likely be Washington’s fiercest rival in the Southeast division, which also features the Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes and the Winnipeg Jets, a new team that resulted from the Atlanta Thrashers relocation. Winnipeg had an NHL team – also called the Jets – from 1979 to 1996, but that squad moved to Phoenix to become the Coyotes.

Tampa goalie Dwayne Roloson returns to the nets for his team this year, and is surely gunning to be a thorn in the side of Capitals players once again. The netminder, who turns 42 on October 12th, played a big part in his team’s four game sweep of Washington.

“Certain teams and players play well against you, and for some reason, Roloson plays well against us,” Green said.

The Penguins and reigning Cup champions Boston Bruins figure to be among the elite teams again in the Eastern Conference, and the small market Buffalo Sabres vastly improved their squad through some key free agent signings. Hockey experts also expect improvement from the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders. The wild card in the East is the Philadelphia Flyers, who traded their top two centers – Mike Richards and Jeff Carter – in exchange for a bevy of young players and picks. The Caps will also need to keep an eye on the New Jersey Devils, a team that usually is a shoo-in for the playoffs but is coming off a down year.

In the Western Conference, the majority of experts are once again picking the Vancouver Canucks to reach the Cup finals.

Karl Alzner is another Washington defenseman who hopes to improve his offensive numbers this year. Alzner, 22, played in all 82 games last year in his first full campaign with the Capitals, pairing with teammate John Carlson, 21, to form a very effective unit that should be patrolling the blueline for years to come.

“There are a lot of things I want to do,” said Alzner, who had 12 points, a plus 14 rating, and averaged 20 minutes of ice time per game last season. “I would like to play every game again, and I also want to produce a little more. I was drafted high [5th overall in 2007] and I was expected to not only defend, but to chip in offensively.”

Alzner echoed Green’s sentiments about wanting to improve the power play, and noted how Vokoun’s presence should have a positive impact on Neuvirth, who posted impressive numbers in 48 games last season and is still only 23 years old.

“It’s great to have [Vokoun], obviously,” Alzner said. “He’s one of the best goalies around right now, and we don’t have to be going against him anymore. He can be doing things for us now.”

Said Knuble, “We had a tandem of two young guys pretty much all of last year, so it’s comforting to have somebody who’s been in the league for awhile.”

The big winger, who is entering his third season with the Capitals, feels the current squad has the right ingredients to make a big playoff push. “We’ve had incredible regular season success, and I think we’re expecting more of the same. But after April, there’s been some questions.”

At 39 and still productive, Knuble is one of the more respected voices in the locker-room. He scored 24 goals in 79 games last year, including seven power play goals. The year before that, he netted 29 goals. He has a penchant for parking his 6’3” frame near the net and deflecting shots and passes past unsuspecting goalies. That style of play comes with a price, however, as the body takes a beating for the sacrifice of goals.

“You always try to at least do what you did last year, and improve on it,” said Knuble, who has also played for the Red Wings, Rangers, Bruins and Flyers since breaking into the league in 1996. “You’ve got to love what you’re doing. You can’t just come out here and fake it.”

Knuble noted how younger generations of Capitals fans are starting to follow the team, a trend he saw in the other big cities he played in. He also said Washington is a great team to play for right now, particularly with a world class talent like Ovechkin in the prime of his career.

“For a long time, it was a tough ticket to sell, so it’s great to play in front of packed houses,” Knuble said.

The players also said they enjoy playing for a stable franchise in a city like Washington that has much to offer. From owner Ted Leonis, to McPhee, to the medical and training staff, to the front office employees, the Capitals have developed a winning blueprint for how to develop and manage a successful organization.

Brouwer said he’s taken to the Clarendon neighborhood in the short time he’s been here. “There are nice restaurants and good spots to get to, but I haven’t ventured too far yet.”

Alzner recently enjoyed taking in his first show at the DC Improv, and said fans have been very good with providing feedback through his Twitter account (@karlalzner).

Green lives in Arlington and said he loves the area. He was mum on the places he enjoys going to during off-hours, however, expressing concerns about unwanted entourages.

One place Brouwer got to visit before being traded to the Caps was the White House, when he got to meet President Obama with the rest of the Blackhawks following their Stanley Cup victory.

It’s a visit he’s hoping to make next year with the rest of his new teammates.

“Anytime you have players that have been deep in the playoffs and have won Stanley Cup rings, they can bring a lot of situational experience, and that’s what I’m trying to bring to the team,” Brouwer said.

Said Alzner, “We like being the top dogs, not the underdogs. It’s one of those things where we should be at the top of the league. There’s a lot of expectations from ourselves, but we know we can do it.”

For schedule and ticket information, visit www.capitals.nhl.com.

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