Semyon Varlamov and his ten career postseason wins are out. Tomas Vokoun and his three career playoff wins are in.
The Capitals biggest difference may be in the net, but Washington will have some new faces not who aren’t donning a goalie mask when the meet the Penguins tonight.
Washington finished 19th in goals-for last season. Six teams who didn’t make the playoffs finished ahead of them in the category. Part of the reason for the slump was Alex Ovechkin’s down year. OV only recorded 32 goals—18 less than his 50 goal-per-season average.
Despite last year’s 14th place finish in goals, Ovechkin is the greatest scorer in the NHL. He has 18 goals in 24 career games against the Penguins and will be more than happy to have the spotlight without Sidney Crosby on the ice.
Ovechkin will be flanked by Mike Knuble and Nicklas Backstrom again this season.
Backstrom suffered his own slump last season, scoring just 65 points after finishing fourth in scoring the year before. The Swedish star is an excellent distributor and playmaker. Before assuming he only racks up points on Ovechkin goals though, understand that Backstrom is a skilled scorer in his own right. In 2009-10 he potted 33 goals. Included in that span was a stretch from 2008-2010 where Backstrom recorded 25 powerplay goals.
Alex Semin is the last of the offensive superstars. He may be the most skilled player in the NHL. Smooth hands, great vision, and a laser spot define his game—just not moreso than his lazy, selfish attitude. ESPN’s Scott Burnside sums Semin up best:
“Is Semin just misunderstood, or is he the dog that many critics suggest he is? The Semin debate is not new. When a player has this much skill but fails to deliver in the clutch as Semin often has, it is a valid talking point. The Caps signed the talented Russian to just a one-year, $6.7 million deal because they feared being tethered to him for longer.
The Semin debate was brought into sharper focus in the offseason, when former Cap Matt Bradley named Semin specifically as a player who didn’t seem to care. A bit harsh, but the reality is, when he’s on, Semin is a top-10 NHL point producer, maybe top-five; when he’s off, he is invisible.”
Perhaps what is most scary about Washington’s offense is their secondary scoring. The Caps have eight players who have scored 20+ goals in a season at least one time. Washington is one of only three teams to score more goals than the Penguins over the past four years—guys like Brooks Laich, Jason Chimera, and Marcus Johansson are the reason why.
Laich posted three consecutive 20 goal seasons before last year. He is a puck-demon, always around the net and in scoring position. Outside of the major offensive threats, Laich is the most potent forward on the Caps.
New acquisitions Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer will be expected to contribute in their first taste of the Caps/Pens rivalry.
“Brouwer was acquired on draft day from the Blackhawks in exchange for the Caps’ first round pick and signed a two-year deal with the team just a few weeks later. Brouwer’s acquisition gave the Caps some much-needed grit and size, along with some pretty recent Stanley Cup-winning experience, and signaled a trend toward adding leadership and physicality to a young, skilled lineup.
It’s probably a bit ludicrous to think that Joel Ward was brought in for four years based solely on one excellent postseason. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s shown he can step up when the games get big, but Ward falls in line with exactly the type of player management seemed keen on getting this summer – big, gritty, tough to play against and able to chip in some offense. And the possibility that we’ll see a checking line with Ward, Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera (particularly based on early reviews in the preseason) is nothing short of drool-worthy.”
Last year, much was made of Washington’s new found commitment to defense. The Caps finished fourth overall in goals-against-average. They only allowed 2.33 goals against per game—until the playoffs. For all the defensive hubbub, the Capitals gave up 16 goals en route to getting swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the playoffs last season.
Shockingly enough, Washington still hasn’t realized that their individual defensive players are the problem.
Mike Green heads the offensive-minded defensive core. The Canadian defenseman scored an astounding 31 goals in 2008-09. There is no better scoring defenseman in the NHL. Unfortunately for the Capitals, his defensive play is as bad as advertised. That is impressive considering that it is pretty well advertised. Green consistently misses assignments, loses his man, and gets out-muscled in his own zone.
Youngster John Carlson is not much better. In fact, he may be worse. For as skilled as Carson is with the puck—which is extremely—he makes odd defensive decisions. He often challenges when he shouldn’t, chases the puck, or gives the puck away in his own zone. Offensively, the 21-year-old is gifted. He recorded 30 points as a rookie last season and is dangerous when working the offensive zone.
“Health is a big hurdle forDennis Wideman, who’s essentially a less potent (but more physical) version of Green. Those two offensive defensemen are complemented by the up-and-coming shutdown pair of youngsters in Karl Alzner and John Carlson.
While Tomas Vokoun ranks as a bombshell of an upgrade in goal and Ward covers the “slightly overspend for a missing piece” aspect of the offseason, Roman Hamrlik is a big upgrade over Scott Hannan. He might not be as physical, but still manages to slow scorers down. Hamrlik can provide some offense as well, which might earn him some time on the power play.
Overall, the Capitals have an interesting group that could round out to one of the better defense corps in the East - if they stay reasonably healthy.”
There was a time when Tomas Vokoun may have been the best goalie in the NHL. That time was four years ago. Vokoun is now 35-years-old and has plenty of ware on his skates. He is still skilled and a major upgrade over Washington’s goalies of the past. But, if you watched his play on Monday night against the Lightning, it was obvious that he is only a shadow of his former All-Star self.
“Vokoun went 22-28-5 with a 2.55 GAA and .922 save percentage in 57 games with the Panthers last year, marking his eight straight season with at least 20 wins. He ranked sixth in the NHL with six shutouts and his .922 save percentage since 2005-06 is tied for the best in that span.”
MOST SKILLED CAP: Alex Semin
Ovechkin may be the best player on the Caps, but in my opinion there is not a more skilled player in the NHL than Semin. Mike Green agrees with me:
“I would say Semin is the most skilled guy in the league by far. Alex will just dangle guys and go score.”
CAP MOST LIKELY TO HAVE SUCCESS AGAINST THE PENS: Mike Knuble
Knuble is the definition of a Penguin killer. The former Flyer has 30 career goals against the Penguins. He has not scored more than 20 against any other team in the NHL.
CAP MOST LIKELY TO BE VICTIMIZED BY THE PENS: John Carlson
Carlson impressed at the end of last season. He improved defensively and played a huge role in the Capitals offensive game. Still, he is young and unreliable in his own zone. Look for the Penguins to take advantage.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THE SERIES:
The Penguins have only defeated the Capitals twice in the past 12 games.
The Penguins haven’t beat the Capitals at home since December 27, 2007.