WASHINGTON CAPITALS 2013-14 SEASON PREVIEW
WASHINGTON CAPITALS: 27-18-3 (57-points) 1st in the Southeast Division; Lost in first round of playoffs to NY Rangers in seven games.
Key additions: Mikhail Grabovski
Key losses: Mike Ribeiro, Jeff Schultz, Wojtek Wolski, Matt Hendricks
With yet another new head coach behind the bench and no training camp to implement rookie head coach Adam Oates new system, the Washington Capitals sputtered to start the lockout shortened season, posting a 10-13-1 through the first half of the year and sat very near dead last in the Eastern Conference.
However, in typical Caps fashion, with Oates leading the charge behind the bench, Washington stormed back to finish 17-5-2 in the final 24 games to clinch their sixth straight playoff appearance, as well as their fifth Southeast division crown in six years.
Washington won an impressive 10 games during the month of April, which marked the Capitals first 10-win month since March of 2011 (12-2-1). Alex Ovechkin scored an NHL record 14 goals in 12 games during the month, besting the league mark for April goals in one season set by Mario Lemieux in 1993 (in only seven games) and equaled by Winnipeg's Alex Zhamnov in 1995’s shortened season.
Playing in the Southeast division has had its benefits for the Capitals and last season showed why Washington may miss playing the teams from down south going forward. Despite finishing with just 57-points, which was only two points better than the No.8 seeded NY Islanders, the Capitals were the No.3 seed, as division winners and had home ice advantage as they squared off with the NY Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The series marked the fourth time in five years that they faced the Blueshirts in the postseason, with the result an all too familiar one to the Caps faithful. After leading in the series 2-0 and then 3-2, the Capitals would fail to score a single goal during the final two game of the series, losing in seven games by a combined margin of 6-0—and 5-0 on home ice in Game 7.
The seven game loss to NY just added to an already miserable playoff record. In fact, no NHL team has lost more playoff series as the higher seed in the last 30 years (11 times), lost more three- or four-overtime playoff games (four) or lost more series in which they led by two games (nine) than the Caps. Washington lost six of them in Game 7, one in elimination Game 5 and twice they did not even get to Game 7 after winning the first two games. Washington has also dropped four game seven’s on home ice during the Alex Ovechkin era alone. The Flyers, Penguins, Canadiens and Rangers have combined to defeat Washington 16-5 in the seventh and deciding affair at Verizon Center. Ironically, the Caps only Game 7 victory at home came vs. the Rangers after Washington trailed that series three games to one.
The Caps do not just lose in the playoffs---they indeed make the history the NHL advertises so heavily once the second season begins. Washington is the only team to ever lose to a No.8 seed (Montreal) after leading the series three games to one. The Caps also became the first President’s trophy winner to lose to an eight seed, same year vs. Habs and became the first ever No.1 seed to be swept in the second round of the playoffs when the TB Lightning won four in a row in during the spring of 2011.
Washington is 2-5 in winner-take-all games and now 1-4 when that game is played at home. In that same span, with the core of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, the Capitals have never advanced past the conference semifinals. Last year’s first round loss marks the third time they’ve been booted from the first round.
The intent here is not to make the Caps sound all gloom and doom but the goal in D.C. is simple, win in the playoffs. Capitals fans are smart, they will boast about the banners that hang from the rafters proclaiming “Southeast Division Champs” but they know the stigma the Southeast division carried during its existence and it is fair to say the faithful are getting antsy for more success when the cherry blossoms begin to bloom in the District.
On a positive note, a season of change for Caps Captain Alex Ovechkin led to a familiar finish. The Great 8 won his third Hart Trophy as the league's MVP. Ovechkin bounced back from 18 months of dismal hockey to capture the award.
He did so in part because of his second half surge. During the final 32 games of the season, Ovechkin scored 27 of his 32 goals. The 32-goals were also the most of any player in the league, which earned him his third Maurice Richard Trophy, as the top goal scorer in the league.
Where the Great 8 really excelled was on the power play. He notched a league high 16 of his 32 goals on the man advantage for a Washington unit that ranked as the No.1 unit in the NHL last season. Many credit his new head coach Adam Oates for the change in Ovie’s play.
Ovechkin’s play had become a little predictable on the rush over the years but his one-timer always remained lethal and with Oates now guiding the power play, Ovi once again became the power-play ace. Oates also slowly convinced Ovechkin that moving from the left side to the right would be best for his game---and the team. Ovechkin was not thrilled and struggled with the move at first but opened up and accepted where Oates was leading him and the results speak for themselves.
"We tried it a couple of times, I didn't feel comfortable there,” Ovechkin would tell reporters before the start of the playoffs last year but he went on to say "I'm glad I did," and I'm glad it worked." After averaging more than 50 goals over his first five NHL seasons, with a high of 65, Ovechkin finished with only 32 two years ago, then 38 last year. One way to look at his resurgence: The 27-year-old Russian scored the same number of goals in 48 games last season, as he compiled in 79 games in 2010-11.
Elsewhere on the ice, goalie Braden Holtby overcame a slow start to emerge as one of the more dependable every night net minders in the NHL during the 12-13 season. He enters the season ranked fourth in wins (37) all-time in Capitals history among goalies originally drafted by the team (Kolzig, 301; Carey, 70; Neuvirth, 55).
Holtby ranked fourth in the league in wins (23) and shutouts (6) last season and was 10th in the league in allowing 90 goals. His final stat line was 23-12-1 with a 2.58 G.A.A. and a .920 save percentage.
The play of defenseman Mike Green was key to the success of the Capitals playoff run down the stretch. Green, who played in just 81 of a possible 162 games from 2010-2012, missed just 13 games last season and led all NHL defenseman in goals with 12. No.52 registered 11 critical points during the Caps final eight games, as the team won six of those contests. Green, along with youngsters John Carlson and Karl Alzner, also held opponents to two goals or less in 13 of the Capitals final 24 games last season.
Another core member of the team also turned in a solid season. Nicklas Backstrom finished third in the NHL in assists (40) and tied for 13th in points (48). Since his rookie season in 2007-08, only four players have tallied more helpers than Backstrom’s 306 career assists.
For the first time since the 2002-03 season and just the fourth time in franchise history (1978-79, 1997-98 and 2002-03), the Capitals opened a season with a new head coach. Adam Oates made his NHL head-coaching debut on Jan. 19 in Tampa Bay after becoming the 16th head coach in franchise history this off-season. Oates earned his first career head-coaching win on Jan. 27 vs. Buffalo (3-2).
Oates helped guide the Capitals to the Southeast Division title in his first season as a head coach in the NHL becoming the 22nd rookie coach to win a division title since the 1969-70 season and the fifth to do so since 2005-06.