Big news out of Kettler Iceplex today as Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau stated that Alexander Ovechkin would be out for an estimated seven to 10 days to deal with an injury situation. Naturally, with the NHL playoffs just over three weeks away, the exact nature of the injury will not be disclosed, much like with the Jason Arnott announcement one week ago today. The Great #8 joins Arnott, Mike Green, Eric Fehr, and Tom Poti as key components who are out of the Washington lineup right now. While on the surface this might seem like a big blow to the Capitals Stanley Cup chances, in reality, it isn’t. In fact, being extra cautious with ailing players right now makes a ton of sense and could likely pay off over the next few months.
Washington is in pretty good shape to lock up their fourth straight Southeast Division title with a five point lead on the Tampa Bay Lightning and even if they did manage to lose that margin over their last nine games (the Bolts have 10 tilts left), would it really matter? Likely not at all, as the Caps are going to be in the post season and what happens then and beyond is all this team will be judged on. Since training camp opened we’ve heard the organization talk about the first 82 games not mattering too much this year. General Manager George McPhee told me on Media Day back in October that he “really didn’t care about the regular season, as long as [the Caps] make the playoffs.” One could argue that every decision since then, from the schematic switch from an aggressive offensive system to a more responsible defensive posture all the way up to the moves made on NHL trade deadline day have been about one thing – doing what is needed to increase the likelihood that the Capitals play their best hockey in the post season this spring.
As good as last season’s team was in a Presidents’ Trophy winning regular season, everyone witnessed the first round collapse and McPhee and Boudreau have been doing everything in their power to not let it happen again this season. Examining the club on paper, position by position, I don’t think there is any doubt that the 2010-11 Washington Capitals team, despite all of the criticism they’ve received this year, is a much better one heading into April than last year’s crew. With Arnott at second line center they finally have that big pivot man that is needed in the post season. #44 is a significant upgrade over last year’s second line center, Eric Belanger. In fact, add in rookie Marcus Johansson and the Nicklas Backstrom/Arnott/MJ90 trio is likely the best Washington has had up the middle in the Boudreau era.
On defense, the top five blue liners are Green, Dennis Wideman, John Carlson, Scott Hannan, and Karl Alzner. Boudreau can either go with Poti, if he is healthy, or opt for Jeff Schultz or John Erskine as his sixth defenseman, depending on the opponent. This is a major improvement over last year’s crew that included Joe Corvo and Shaone Morrisonn, two mediocore, at best, blue liners. Alzner didn’t even arrive on the scene in last year’s post season until game seven and by then it was too late. #27 is +15 in his first full season in the NHL.
In net, 2010-11 will be the first time in three seasons that the Capitals don’t have to start Jose Theodore in game one of the playoffs, thank goodness. Theo failed miserably in goal and whether Boudreau goes with the more NHL playoff experienced Semyon Varlamov or rookie Michal Neuvirth, who incidentally hasn’t ever lost a North American playoff series (h/t @JapersRink), it doesn’t matter, the goaltending should be better. Of course if both falter or are injured, rookie Braden Holtby, who won the NHL’s first star of the week on March 14th, is also an option.
Down the stretch in 2009-10, the majority of the Caps headlines were all about the regular season dominance and individual statistics and trophies. Both Ovechkin and Green were positioned for post season hardware nominations while Alexander Semin was focused on a 40 goal season in an attempt to try and maximize his free agent earning power for the summer of 2011. During that closing stretch #52 took a slash to the arm in Columbus and was never right for the post season. Ovechkin also played out the string and after the series was over it was revealed he was banged up as well. Following that game seven loss, the mad dash for stats, trophies, and big contracts all seemed so futile.
Flash forward to now, especially since #44 arrived on deadline day, and we are reading about Ovechkin and Semin spending lots of time with Arnott picking his brain about what it takes to win in the post season (thanks @dcsportsbog). In my mind, #28 played his best hockey of the season when he was finally paired with a true second line center in Arnott, much like he did when Sergei Fedorov was here in 2008 and 2009. Semin re-upped for another year here and there is no more talk from him or his agent about “the dollars.” It seems that the two young Russians stars are on a mission to shut their critics up once and for all and that they just might have matured as a result of the Capitals past playoff disappointments.
Like I said earlier, on paper this team is better than last year’s at this stage, but that heavily depends on the health of Ovechkin, Arnott, Backstrom, Semin, and Green, as well as a few others. Therefore, the cautious approach to the last nine games of the NHL regular season that both McPhee and Boudreau appear to be taking makes great sense and hopefully will pay dividends for them starting April 13th and beyond, when health and the matchups will be huge factors in the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup. It’s only 23 days away, but who’s counting?