The five reasons behind the Caps' 7-0-0 season start

Posted on: Thursday 10/27/2011 10:27am

AP: b8bd1781-4a9f-47d6-898b-7f66ba8b46e7
Pittsburgh Penguins' Tyler Kennedy, right, battles with Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, of Russia, in the second period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Ben Raby, wtop.com

WASHINGTON -- For the tenth time since Bruce Boudreau was named Capitals head coach in Nov. 2007, the Caps are on a winning streak of at least five games. The Capitals have opened the 2011-12 season with seven straight wins -- the best start in franchise history -- as they now take their perfect record to western Canada with games Thursday in Edmonton and Saturday in Vancouver.

Only five teams in NHL history have won more than seven games to begin a season, with the 1993-94 Toronto Maple Leafs and 2006-07 Buffalo Sabres sharing the all-time mark at 10-0-0. Both teams advanced to the conference finals before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup finalists.

In Washington, the Capitals' hot start is being met with cautious optimism as the four-time defending Southeast Division champions have been known to dominate the regular season, only to fall short in the playoffs. But the Caps can be excused if they're beginning to develop a healthy swagger, not so much because of how many games they've won, but more so because of how they're winning them.

Compared to years past, the Capitals are less dependent on two-time league MVP Alex Ovechkin whose three goals and seven points this season leave him on the outside of the NHL's top-30 scorers.

Instead, the Capitals are succeeding with solid goaltending, a healthy crop of defensemen, fast starts from a pair of Swedish centers, depth up front and an improved power play.

Below are five reasons for the Capitals 7-0-0 start:

Tomas Vokoun:

Since backing up Michal Neuvirth in the Caps' season opener and then allowing five goals on 28 shots in a 6-5 shootout win over Tampa Bay, Vokoun has been the Caps' undisputed No. 1 goalie.

Vokoun called his Capitals debut his worst start in five years, but the 35-year-old Czech has rebounded nicely, stopping 164 of 170 shots (.965 save percentage) in the five games since.

With Neuvirth having been sidelined the past five games with a bruised right foot, the timing of Vokoun's strong play could not have been better.

For the season Vokoun is 6-0-0 with a 1.80 goals-against-average and .944 save percentage. He was also named the NHL's third star of the week Monday after wins over Florida, Philadelphia and Detroit.

"He's been unbelievable -- so fun to play in front of," defenseman Mike Green says. "He battles so hard even when guys are in front of him; He's making those extra saves. He's just been outstanding. I don't want to pump him up too much, but it's a pleasure to play in front of."

With Neuvirth healthy again, Boudreau plans to start each of his goalies once on the two-game road trip.

A healthy and deep set of defensemen:

When General Manager George McPhee acquired defenseman Dennis Wideman at last year's Trade Deadline, the idea was that at some point Wideman would join Green and John Carlson to form arguably the NHL's best trio of right-handed puck-moving defensemen.

Injuries though, first to Green (concussion) and then to Wideman (leg hematoma), kept them from ever playing in the same game last season. Seven games into the 2011-12 campaign and the Caps have a better appreciation of what they were missing last spring.

"It's great to have a healthy Mike, he's very sharp with the puck and makes a lot of things happen," Mike Knuble says. "With Wideman, when he arrived last year when (Green) went down, he was tremendous at quarterbacking everything and it was big when he went out of our lineup too. That was a big hole."

Both Green and Wideman have scored overtime game-winning goals this season, with Green matching a career-high four points in Saturday's win over Detroit, and Wideman tying a career-high with a seven-game point streak (two goals, five assists).

"I guess it's more important to say how much we missed him last year," Boudreau says of Wideman, "and nobody realized how much we missed him when he was out."

Washington defensemen have combined for 21 points in seven games and are a combined plus-22 during the winning streak.

Contributions from Swedish centers Backstrom and Johansson:

Both Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson had plenty of incentive to do well at the start of the season and so far both have answered the bell.

Backstrom is coming off a career-low 65 points (including a career-low 22 power play points), and was held to just two assists (and no goals) in nine playoff games last spring.

Through seven games this season, Backstrom is the Caps leading scorer with 10 points (including a team-high 7 points on the power play) and his natural playmaking abilities are a big reason for the Caps improved play with the man advantage.

The sophomore Johansson, 21, was a healthy scratch in the Caps season opener, but has since solidified his position as the Capitals' No. 2 center. Johansson is tied with Jason Chimera for the team lead with four goals, and the Swede's three game-winning goals are a league best.

Depth among forwards:

Nowhere is the Capitals lessened dependency on Ovechkin more evident that in the early season distribution of ice time.

While Ovechkin leads all Caps forwards averaging 18:45 of ice time per game, the Caps captain has never averaged lower than 21:18 in any of his six NHL seasons.

That could change this year given the play of the Capitals third and fourth lines combined with Boudreau's wish to balance his superstars' minutes.

"If you look at the model of Boston winning the cup last year, they used their fourth line an awful lot and their best lines very rarely played 20 minutes," Boudreau says.

"You can go even further if you look at other teams and the balance that they've had and hopefully that model is something that we can guide ourselves with."

In seven games this season, Ovechkin has already skated 18:10 or less four times. In 79 games last season, Ovechkin skated 18:10 or less only ten times.

So, with Ovechkin and the Caps No. 1 line spending more time on the bench, the extra minutes are going primarily to the Caps' third and fourth lines.

The No. 3 line (Chimera-Laich-Ward) has combined for seven goals in as many games while often shutting down the other teams' top scorers. Chimera's four goals are also tied for the team lead.

The fourth line (Hendricks-Perreault-Halpern) has seen a surge in its play with the recent addition of center Mathieu Perreault.

Boudreau singled Perreault out at the end of the preseason as the best player throughout training camp. So far that success has carried over to the regular season as well.

"He's like that energizer bunny," Boudreau said of the 5-foot 10-inch Perreault, who has three goals and five points in five games.

Perreault is also a team-best plus-6, but it's his knack for the net and his ability to score that has made the Capitals fourth line an offensive threat.

"It gives us an offensive aspect that we didn't have before," says Hendricks. "I know (Jeff Halpern) and myself can get him the puck and get open for him. We just go to the net and create room for him and let him do his thing because he's a great offensive threat at any time. It gives us more confidence with the puck and it's been beneficial so far."

An improved power play:

After having the NHL's No. 2 power play in 2008-09 (25.2 percent), and the No.1 power play in 2009-10 (25.2 percent), the Capitals dropped to 16th in the league in 2010-11 (17.5 percent).

The rest the league appeared to have caught on to the Caps power play tendencies, and the Capitals struggled to adjust.

This year the Caps have come out with a different look, using Ovechkin more along the half-wall as opposed to at the point (Green and Wideman now sharing the duties), while placing a greater emphasis on quicker passes and puck movement.

"I think what we're doing is we're moving the puck quick," Green says. "We get (penalty killers) running around and that creates openings and it creates chances. I think in the past we've stood around with the puck, waiting for guys to get open and that doesn't work."

Through seven games, the Caps power play is back in a familiar spot -- rated second in the NHL with a 29.6 percent success rate (only Ottawa at 31.3 percent is better). The Capitals have scored at least one power play goal in six of their seven games this season including in each of the last five.

"They're moving the puck real well," Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said after the Capitals went 2-for-4 on the power play in a 7-1 win over Detroit Saturday.

"They're finding open guys and they have guys that can put the puck in the back of the net, so it's a very dangerous power play."

"Guys are hungry and excited to be on the power play," says Knuble. "The fact is, there's a good competition to get on (the power play) so when you're out there it's not a lay-up that you're going out there again. If you're out there and not doing what we're trying to do, there are a few other guys waiting to play too."

Streaking by the Numbers:

1 - The Caps largest deficit of the season

2 - Number of overtime wins (in addition to a shootout win) during the winning streak

3 - Game-winning goals from Marcus Johansson, tops in the NHL.

4 - Career-high point total matched by Mike Green (2g, 2a) in Saturday's 7-1 win over Detroit

5 - Consecutive games in which the Capitals have recorded at least one power play goal

6 - Number of games won by Tomas Vokoun in as many starts with his new team

7 - Consecutive games in which Dennis Wideman has recorded a point (2G, 5A), tying a career-high.

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

Green joins Caps on road despite injury

Posted on: Tuesday 10/25/2011 7:56pm By benraby

Ben Raby, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – Capitals defenseman Mike Green missed his second straight practice Tuesday as the Caps continued to prepare for their first multi-game road trip of the season.

According to the team, Green is suffering from a lower body injury and is considered day-to-day. Coach Bruce Boudreau said after practice that Green will travel with the team to Edmonton and is hopeful that the 26-year-old can skate with the team Wednesday.

The Caps begin their two-game trip Thursday against the Oilers and if Green is unable to play, Sean Collins will likely dress as the Capitals’ sixth defenseman.

John Erskine has not yet been cleared for his season debut (offseason shoulder surgery), leaving the Caps with little choice but to recall Collins Tuesday from the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears.

 “When we phoned down there,” Boudreau explained, “he’s the best right-handed defenseman that they had… he has experience playing for us and he’s playing well. If we had kept a seventh defenseman [to begin the season] it would have been him anyways, so he was the logical choice.”

Collins appeared in four games with the Capitals last season recording a goal and two penalty minutes. He also dressed for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinal against Tampa Bay.

“I spent a pretty good chunk of time here last year with the same coaching staff and a lot of the same guys,” Collins said. “The systems have changed a little bit, but we did them in training camp and we’re doing them in Hershey as well so I feel good about it.”

Green took a puck to the jaw in Saturday’s 7-1 win over Detroit - an injury that required stitches - and reportedly sprained his ankle on the play as well.

The injuries did not seem to slow Green down as he finished with two power play goals while tying his career-high with four points. After the game, Boudreau called it Green’s “best game - maybe in a year.”

The Capitals visit the Oilers, Thursday at 9:40 PM. Catch the broadcast on WFED 1500AM and online at www.wfed.com. Coverage begins with the Caps Pregame at 9:00.

(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All rights reserved.)

Ovechkin given day off after slow start

Posted on: Wednesday 10/19/2011 1:43pm

AP: 6750b722-1008-4284-9fa8-19ef95993eac
Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin sits on the bench during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011. The Capitals won 3-2 in overtime. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Ben Raby, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - The Capitals returned to practice Wednesday without Alex Ovechkin. According to head coach Bruce Boudreau, Ovechkin was given a ‘maintenance day' to nurse a few ‘bumps and bruises.'

"With two more games this week," Boudreau explained, "we just told him to take [the practice] off and get some stretching done."

Ovechkin skated a season-low 17:35 in Tuesday's 3-0 win over the Panthers, although his usual time on the power play was limited with Florida penalized just once all game.

"If we had seven power plays last night, I'm sure he would have had 22 or 23 minutes," Boudreau says.

"In those occasions, especially when we're into a matching lines situation, if you look at Brooks [Laich's] line, instead of getting 13 minutes they're getting 17 minutes, and so Alex's line's minutes are going down, but I think in the long run that's definitely beneficial to us."

Statistically speaking, Ovechkin has had stronger starts in each of his previous six seasons. His one goal and three points through the first five games of the year are career-lows, as are his 17 shots on goal.

Ovechkin was also singled out by Boudreau after the Caps' second win of the season - Oct. 10 over Tampa Bay - as one of his players who needed to step up his game.

"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 in the Caps' 6-5 shootout win over the Lightning. "He's our No. 1 player, but he can be better, there's no doubt about it."

Boudreau denied Ovechkin nursing any sort of injury related to any number of slashes he took in the first two games of the year.

Despite Ovechkin's numbers, Washington is 5-0-0 for the first time in franchise history, with a quartet of games before the end of the month that should serve as another good measuring stick.

The Capitals will be in Philadelphia Thursday to face the 4-0-1 Flyers, with an early perch atop the Eastern Conference standings at stake.

The Caps then return home Saturday to face the 4-0-0 Detroit Red Wings, before traveling to Western Canada next week for games against the upstart Edmonton Oilers and the reigning Presidents' Trophy winners in Vancouver.

"It's going to be a great challenge," Boudreau says. "I'd rather play a minor league team, but it's going to be a great challenge. You want to see where you're at, at different stages in the season.

"Three of the next four games are against the elite in the league so we'll know whether we've got a lot more work to do or whether we're on the right track."

Catch the Capitals (5-0-0) and Flyers (4-0-1) Thursday night on WFED 1500AM and online at Federal News Radio. Coverage begins with Caps Pregame at 6:45.

(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All rights reserved.)

Capitals start season with power

Posted on: Sunday 10/9/2011 2:04pm By jwarner

AP: aa7a27e6-1645-4c46-b61e-35fd9cb8116e
Washington Capitals defenseman Mike Green, right, celebrates his game-winning goal with teammates Alex Ovechkin (8), of Russia, and Nicklas Backstrom (19), of Sweden, during the overtime period of an NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011, in Washington. The Capitals won 4-3 in overtime. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Jonathan Warner, wtop.com

The roaring sea of red is back at Verizon Center, and for at least one game, so is the power play.

The Caps scored two with a man advantage, including the game-winner as they opened the season with a 4-3 win over Carolina.

The Caps had one of the top power-play units in the league for two-straight seasons before inexplicably losing its effectiveness in the playoffs against Montreal in 2010 and then have that carry through all of last year.

Should they get that unit clicking again, the goals and the fun should come in bunches.

The Caps may have something that coach Bruce Boudreau has been seeking -- balanced scoring.

Against the Hurricanes, they got goals from their second and third lines and defense.

Just wait till the top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble get on the scoresheet.

It was good to see Mike Green light the lamp in OT. He had just eight goals in an injury-filled 2010-2011 after scoring 50 combined the previous two seasons.

I like the line combinations and defensive pairings. It appears Boudreau does as well. If that's the case, he may not get to mix the lines up as he likes to do.

Instead, he'll just have to enjoy the offensive show.

Nothing wrong with that.

Follow Jonathan Warner and WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

Is this the year for the Capitals?

Posted on: Wednesday 10/5/2011 11:48am By jwarner

AP: b85a2e0d-82ac-4aa0-b489-85bbeb0d3d7a
Will this be the season the Caps put it all together? (AP)

Jonathan Warner, wtop.com

This time will be different.

At least that’s what we thought in 2009, 2010 and 2011. That’s when the Washington Capitals were supposed to win the Stanley Cup.

Certainly in 2010 when they had the best record in the NHL.  But they bowed out in a stunning first-round loss to the worst team in the playoffs – the Montreal Canadiens.

Certainly in 2011, when we thought this young team had learned their lesson, only to watch them put all their effort into beating the New York Rangers in the first round, and then get swept by Tampa Bay in the second.

To prevent that from happening again, the Capitals made some significant moves in the offseason. They got bigger, tougher, more experienced players. That should get them over the hump, right?

Maybe.

You see,  the core of this team remains the same, and as they go, so go the Caps. They have to hope their Young Guns have matured. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and Brooks Laich are still the heart of this team.

They’ve been with the Caps since 2007-2008, the start of their recent successful run. However, after improving steadily for three straight seasons, all five posted numbers last year that they’d like to forget.

Where did the NHL’s top offense go? More importantly, how do they get it back?

Bruce Boudreau’s first three seasons behind the bench provided us with the NHL’s most exciting team. Last year, though, they inexplicably lost their mojo. They'd better find it if they want to raise Lord Stanley’s Cup, because while the Capitals needed to improve their defense -- and they have -- lighting the lamp is who they are, who we want them to be and how they are most successful.

Yes, defense wins championships, and the Caps seem to have enough of that now, along with the addition of veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun. So how about kicking up the tempo of the offense? It’s a lack of goalscoring the past two playoffs that hurt them, not their defense.

The Caps have been the top team in the East the last two regular seasons. All the ingredients are there for a repeat of that performance.

And, if the Young Guns are on target, they should be able to put together a long run in the playoffs.

Now is the time they grow up and stop teasing us with what they could be -- show us how great you are.

Follow Jonathan Warner and WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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