Capitals Armed And Ready For Season
By Ryan Lazo, sports editor
Sep 27, 2013, 08:05
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Among a widespread National Hockey League shake-up, the Capitals find themselves no longer residing in the perennially weak Southeast Division, but in the newly-formed Metropolitan Division.
The Metropolitan will feature powerhouse teams such as the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and last year’s playoff darlings, the New York Islanders, making their path to the playoffs more daunting.
While not much will change — Washington will play every team in the NHL and only play their division foes 28 times — their path to a sixth division crown in seven years is. The Capitals will no longer find themselves as a favorite in a division stacked with playoff contenders from top-to-bottom.
“Every division has so many good teams in it and has so much depth,” Washington goalie Braden Holtby said after a morning skate. “Everyone keeps talking about ours, but it’s just equal to everyone else.”
While it’s true all of the divisions in the current NHL alignment will be tough, Holtby is deflecting the magnitude of moving into the Metropolitan division.
Take a look at last year as a model.
In a lockout-shortened season and their first year under head coach Adam Oates, the Capitals struggled to a 10-14-2 mark in the first half before catching fire in the second, going 17-4-2. That included a franchise-record setting April where Washington posted a 11-1-1 record, also the best in the NHL.
But a closer look at the record shows the Capitals took advantage of a rather soft schedule in the season’s final month. Washington played only six playoff teams during the month of April, capturing victories in four of those six games.
Yet, forward Joel Ward is optimistic about the Capitals’ chances, saying they need to view it as another challenge to overcome.
“It prepares you well. Obviously you are playing against the teams you would probably end up playing in the playoffs,” Ward said by his locker. “Obviously a lot of good teams ... we battle every night and it will be good for us. It’s going to make you better and make you stronger.”
And when you watch what this team is capable of, it’s hard to doubt what Ward said.
Facing the Nashville Predators in their second-to-last preseason home game, the Capitals showed their offensive fire power. While Washington went 0-for-2 during the first period on the power play, a mark in which they led the NHL last season with a 26.8 percent scoring rate, it was easy to see how dangerous this team can be.
RYAN LAZO/Hopewell News/News-Patriot
The first-team power play unit featured Mike Green at the point, Alex Ovechkin set up in the left circle, Troy Brouwer in the slot with Nicklas Backstrom and Mikhail Grabovski taking turns being the quarterback by the right side of the net. All five of these players have the vision and creativity to drive opponents crazy, just like they did to the Predators in the second period.
Washington, on their fourth power play of the night, took 17 seconds to score on Nashville, utilizing some deft passing. Backstrom set up from the point, drew one Predators’ defenseman in before sliding a pass to Grabovski on the left side of net and he did not hesitate before firing a pass to the right to a charging Ovechkin for the Capitals’ fourth goal of the game.
“We have options out there. With all of the skill guys out there, we can make a play,” Ovechkin said about Washington’s power play.
But the Washington captain also heaped praise on the assist-man for his goal on the power play. Grabovski, a late summer signing for one-year and $3 million, is a top-six forward with an ability to have a major impact on this Capitals team.
In just his second preseason game, Grabovski registered three assists — a head coach Adam Oates hat-trick — and dazzled fans with his creative puck-handling. But his pass to Ovechkin, a no hesitation feed was the highlight of his night.
“That’s communication,” Ovechkin said with a smile.
And it’s that communication which makes this high-octane Capitals’ offense even harder to stop than last year’s version which finished fourth in the NHL, averaging 3.04 goals per game. When you add Grabovski, a player who has compiled 217 points in his six full NHL seasons, with a reigning Hart and Richard Trophy winner, a team is bound to be good.
Add in a player who is fifth in the league with 306 assists since the 2007-08 season in Backstrom and you have depth. Then, put the reigning league-leading scoring defenseman Green at the point and it’s an embarrassment of riches.
“He fits into our puzzle on the power play,” Oates said of Grabovski on the power play unit. “He’s a left-shot player. He skates well and he’s a top-six forward. “We have a lot of guys who can play those positions.”
And that’s what makes this team dangerous going into the Metropolitan Division.
While it’s likely they will struggle to win the division, a playoff spot is not out of their reach. There is too much talent on the team and in the system, with players like Tom Wilson and Connor Carrick, for success not to follow.
“We’ve been working hard,” Backstrom said of Washington’s preseason. “We’re following our system. It’s been a good thing so far and hopefully we can keep it going into the regular season.”
After needing a red-hot finish to qualify for the playoffs last season, the Capitals proved they have the players and the talent to have great results. However, another dismal first half could doom them, leaving Washington on the outside of the playoffs.