The Washington Capitals are set to open their 2011-12 season on Saturday night at 7pm against the Carolina Hurricanes at the Verizon Center. Alexander Oveckhin, who flew back to Russia on Tuesday to attend his uncle’s funeral, has returned and word has it that Michal Neuvirth, who has had good success against the Canes, will get the nod in goal (Tomas Vokoun is expected to start on Monday against Tampa Bay).
A year ago on Caps Media Day, Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee stated that he didn’t really care about the regular season and was only concerned with a deep playoff run for his club in the spring of 2011. After the Caps won the Eastern Conference for the second consecutive regular season, Washington was swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the NHL Playoffs this past May. In the following weeks after the loss, McPhee began analyzing what went wrong and he immediately began making some changes. The roster additions (Vokoun, Jeff Halpern, Troy Brouwer, Roman Hamrlik, and Joel Ward) and re-signings (Brooks Laich, Karl Alzner) are well documented, but behind the scenes the 14 year Caps GM began communicating with his players letting him know that this season his club needed to be in peak physical condition when camp opened and being a professional, day in and day out, was going to be expected.
On Thursday, at Caps Media Day, one year later, I had a chance to talk with the GM about the last 18 months since that painful round one playoff loss to Montreal in 2010. Specifically, I mentioned the “just get to the playoffs mentality” in the 2010-11 campaign and noted that being around the team this September and early October that the mood seemed markedly different. I then asked him if he agreed with my assessement.
“Yeah, I think you captured it pretty well. I think there was some sort of a hangover last year. We had this fabulous year and it didn’t work out for us, and now we got to go through this again. Maybe we’ve all learned something that it’s about showing up every year, ready to go, business like, and play your guts out and see what happens. I don’t sense any of those issues from last year. There seems to be a different attitude,” said McPhee.
Last season the Caps changed their system mid year to a more defensive posture and they rose to fourth overall in the NHL in goals against average. They were not able to sustain that in the post season, but adding Vokoun and some of the other players should make this club better defensively, which I believe is a major ingredient to a deep Stanley Cup playoff run.
“You have to be good defensively, there is no way around it. There aren’t many teams that win that can’t keep the puck out of their own net. We made a real effort last year to improve in that area and we sure did, it was remarkable how much we improved. We’d like to keep that standard there,” started McPhee on the importance of playing well in their own end, “Obviously the goaltender helps a lot but the other players are all pretty good two way players. They play responsible games defensively but when they get the puck on their sticks they can do something with it, that’s important. They play the game right, but if they get an opportunity, they might score,” finished the GM noting that guys like Brouwer, Ward, and Halpern can light the lamp too.
For a goalie to be dominant and steal games, he has to know how his skaters are going to play in front of him. It may take some time for Vokoun to find that zone but the work put in since last winter by Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau’s club should help. Forward Jay Beagle says that the focus on the defensive zone should never end. He also mentioned that it was up to all players to be good defensively, not just the guys playing on the bottom two lines.
“Last year we were pretty good in the d-zone, we worked on it a lot and I think it is carrying over to this year. The d-zone is a tough thing, you have to work on it constantly and you can’t cheat in the d-zone. If you cheat you are going to get beat and they are going to score a goal. So that is one of the main things is the accountability. Basically accountability has been a huge thing this year at the start. Being accountable for where you are supposed to be and we’re really working on keeping our feet moving. Limiting that player to space and taking their space away, right away, and being more aggressive in the d-zone. It’s going to result in getting pucks out and playing in their end, which is where you want to be playing anyways. If we can get perfect in the d-zone it is going to help us get where we want to be and that is to win a Stanley Cup,” said the undrafted forward who earned a season opening roster spot with Washington for the first time this fall.
Notes: Hershey, who many believe to be the heavy favorites to win the AHL’s Calder Cup this season, opened with a 3-2 victory in Broome County against the defending AHL champion Binghampton Senators. Braden Holtby stopped 27 of 29 shots while Christian Hanson, Chris Bourque, and Patrick Wellar scored for the Bears…Ovechkin and defenseman Mike Green continue their tradition of buying season tickets as part of Ovi’s Crazy 8s and Green’s Gang. Ovechkin has bought season tickets since 2006 and Green since 2008. The tickets are donated every game to Most Valuable Kids (MVK) who distribute them to either injured soldiers or active military members and their families; or to boys and girls, 18 and under, through numerous nonprofit organizations that focus on children in low-income and underserved households.