NHL PLAYOFFS 2013: Washington Capitals – Coming back to life.

The Capitals celebrate a goal by Alex Ovechkin.  Image courtesy of bleacherreport.com.

The Capitals celebrate a goal by Alex Ovechkin. Image courtesy of bleacherreport.com.

As we get closer to the playoffs, IceNationUK will be taking a look at each team’s roster as they clinch a spot in the postseason.

Next, the Washington Capitals.

SEASON LOWDOWN

Adam Oates looks to have rejuvenated Alex Ovechkin.  Image courtesy of zimbio.com.

Adam Oates looks to have rejuvenated Alex Ovechkin. Image courtesy of zimbio.com.

The Washington Capitals came into the 2013 season with perhaps the most questions out of any team in the league.  Would Adam Oates prove to be a good NHL coach?  Would Alex Ovechkin continue his decline from superstar status to “merely” elite?  Who would emerge as the starting goalie? Would Nick Backstrom return from injury as effective as he was before it?  Would Mike Green regain his form as an elite offensive defender?  And would the team be able to overcome its past playoff demons?

Well, several of those questions can now be answered.  Oates has certainly seen his team perform well in the second half of the season after what can be called an “adjustment period” in the first few weeks, but the measure of his success will – perhaps somewhat unfairly – be how well the team does in the playoffs.  Alex Ovechkin has well and truly silenced his critics after an electrifying second half of the season, as he is leading the league in goal scoring and is 5th in overall scoring.  Of course, Ovechkin’s “demise” was greatly overstated – he did still score 38 goals last year – but it’s nice to see him back on top, albeit in a shortened year.  Braden Holtby has emerged as the team’s starter, despite Neuvirth having a headstart on the position, and this will help the team no end – having three goalies vying for the starting role (Varlamov, Neuvirth, Holtby) no matter how talented, is not a good situation, and it’s good that one of them has finally grabbed the role and ran with it.  Nicklas Backstrom is having a great year, obviously helped by Ovechkin’s resurgence, but he’s stayed healthy and has kept putting up points.  Mike Green is scoring well, though is still having injury troubles.

As for the playoffs?  Well we’ll find out soon enough.

The team actually started off the year in awful form, going 1-5-1 in January and getting outscored 25-15 in that time.  Ovechkin also only had 3 points in those first 7 games.  They didn’t get off to the greatest start in February either, but eventually managed to pick it up and finished the month a very average 6-6-0, but Ovechkin was starting to gear up.  March saw the team start to come into their own, although they still ran hot and cold.  They finished the month 9-6-1, and began a hot streak that would extend well into April.  They won 8 straight games to start the month, and are currently 10-1-1 with one game remaining.  That’s a great way to end the season, and bodes well for them heading into the playoffs.  Despite an awful start to the season, they managed to take the Southeast Division title for the fifth time in the last six years, and clinched their sixth straight playoff berth.

2012/13 Season Team Stats (to date):

47 Games – 26 Wins – 18 Losses – 3 OT Losses – 55 Points

Goals For = 146

Goals Against = 128

Goal Differential = +18

Home Record = 14-8-1

Away Record = 12-10-2

CURRENT LINEUP

Forwards:

MARCUS JOHANSSON – NICKLAS BACKSTROM – ALEX OVECHKIN

MARTIN ERAT – MIKE RIBEIRO – TROY BROUWER

JASON CHIMERA – MATHIEU PERREAULT – ERIC FEHR

AARON VOLPATTI – MATT HENDRICKS – JAY BEAGLE

Defence:

KARL ALZNER – MIKE GREEN

JOHN ERSKINE – JOHN CARLSON

JACK HILLEN – STEVEN OLEKSY

Goal:

BRADEN HOLTBY

MICHAL NEUVIRTH

EXTRA: WOJTEK WOLSKI, CASEY WELLMAN, DMITRY ORLOV, JEFF SCHULTZ

INJURED: JOEL WARD, BROOKS LAICH, TOM POTI

TOP SCORERS

washington capitals top scorers 2013

EVALUATION

Nicklas Backstrom - up there with the best.  Image courtesy of bigstory.ap.org.

Nicklas Backstrom – up there with the best. Image courtesy of bigstory.ap.org.

There is no denying the Capitals have one hell of a top line.  Alex Ovechkin is, and has been since he entered the league nearly 8 years ago, one of the best goal scorers ever seen in the game, and has erased a lot of the doubts about him this season.  He has had the benefit of a career high shooting percentage, and like most of the team his PDO of 1028 implies he’s been playing with good luck, but not to a massive extent.  Ovechkin does also have the benefit of  the most extreme offensive zonestarts on the team (though still not ridiculous at 54%) and taking on relatively easy competition, but he outshoots that competition easily as you’d expect, so really the coach is just taking massive advantage of Ovechkin’s offensive ability.  Backstrom is enjoying a quality offensive campaign aswell, and is doing it whilst taking on tough competition – without giving up much at all the other way.  He plays big minutes in all situations, so he pretty much is a perfect 1st line center – and I’d argue one of the most underrated.  Marcus Johansson is putting up points at the best rate of his young career, and is proving perfectly capable of keeping up with the two superstars on his line.

Martin Erat was a surprise trade-name on deadline day, and came at the cost of top young prospect Filip Forsberg.  Offensively he hasn’t been a huge factor for the team, but he is a capable scorer usually so I wouldn’t expect that to last.  More importantly, he’s been taking on very tough competition with less than favourable zonestarts and outperforming it, allowing players like Ovechkin to take on easier minutes.  That cannot be overstated.  Mike Ribeiro has been a fantastic offensive addition the team, putting up points with great consistency and keeping pace with Ovechkin and Backstrom; having that kind of offensive depth is vital in playoff games when opponents try and shut top-lines down.  However, he has shown an alarming tendency to perform poorly in terms of shot differential, showing that despite creating a lot, he also gives up a lot.  Luckily he’s on a line with someone like Erat, and also Troy Brouwer, who takes on the toughest competition of any forward on the team and still putting up goals at a great rate, and playing in all situations.  A nice range of players on that second line.

Mathieu Perreault provides a decent 3rd line center option.  Image courtesy of zimbio.com.

Mathieu Perreault provides a decent 3rd line center option. Image courtesy of zimbio.com.

Jason Chimera is a quality veteran speedster, who’s offense has dropped off from a career year last year, but he does take on tough competition – he get’s outshot, but given his high defensive zonestarts that’s understandable and allows the offensive talent to run free.  Mathieu Perreault is starting to round into form as a fairly decent third line center, not great at anything but good at a lot of things.  It would be nicer if he was taking on tougher competition and did some PK work, but as it is he’s doing his job well.  Eric Fehr returned to the Capitals after one season as a Jet, and is his usual reliable self, playing tough 3rd line minutes and not giving up much.

Aaron Volpatti is another of the “goon” types that just really doesn’t have much value to a team.  He plays minimal minutes, can’t score, doesn’t PK, and plays the easiest competition on the team – although he doesn’t get outshot too badly, which is nice I suppose.  Matt Hendricks has offered up a fairly nice season, chipping in on offence and playing a decent amount on the PK and providing a physical presence, but he does give up a fair number of shots despite getting relatively easy minutes.  Jay Beagle has the toughest zonestarts on the team, so it’s no surprise he gets outshot, and he takes on a lot of PK minutes, so his value to the team is purely defensive.

Once the team gets Joel Ward and Brooks Laich, both capable two-way forwards, back then the team will be in even better shape as it will push less capable players like Volpatti back on to the bench.  Wojtek Wolski also gives the team a nice offensive option on the bench should they need it.

John Carlson on the attack.  Image courtesy of bleacherreport.com.

John Carlson on the attack. Image courtesy of bleacherreport.com.

On defence, Karl Alzner has seen his offence amount to almost nothing this season, but then that’s not his job.  He takes on tough competition with about 46% offensive zonestarts and still dominates the competition in shot attempt differential.  That is a great defensive defenceman, and his offensive slump shouldn’t last.  Mike Green as mentioned is scoring pretty well, but gives up a fair amount of shots when on the ice.  Luckily he’s able to be paired with someone like Alzner to back him up when he goes flying on one of his sorties.

John Carlson is the best defenceman on the team, proficient at everything and bad at nothing.  He takes on the toughest competition out of any defenceman on the team and absolutely dominates it, putting up points and not giving up much of anything.  Plays over 25 minutes a night and stays healthy – vitally important for a player of such value to the team.  John Erskine has been asked to play above his station at times this year, but is valuable in that he plays tough competition with extreme defensive zonestarts and doesn’t get outshot too badly, whilst also playing heavy PK minutes.  Has essentially taken on the Jeff Schultz role, and hasn’t done too badly at all.

Jack Hillen is a replacement level defenceman, a number 7 at best, but he hasn’t actually done too badly at all this year.  He’s chipped in on offence, played on the PK unit, and not been a liability at 5v5 play.  You could repeat almost exactly the same evaluation for Steve Oleksy, remarkable for a player in his first NHL season at age 27.  That they can play such players whilst the likes of Jeff Schultz is on the bench and Tom Poti is injured is testament to the depth the team has.

Braden Holtby has taken charge of the Capitals' crease.  Image courtesy of usatoday.com.

Braden Holtby has taken charge of the Capitals’ crease. Image courtesy of usatoday.com.

In goal, as mentioned, Braden Holtby appears to have finally broken through as the Caps starting goalie.  With a 2.61 GAA and .919 SV% he’s not elite, but he’s been far better and more consistent than backup Michal Neuvirth.  He also has 4 shutouts, a nice number for a short season.  Neuvirth hasn’t been bad however, proving he can step in when required and not be a liability.

STAR PLAYOFF PERFORMER

John Carlson has developed into a difference maker in the NHL.  Image courtesy of flickr.com.

John Carlson has developed into a difference maker in the NHL. Image courtesy of flickr.com.

I have to go once again with the defenceman here.  John Carlson might not be flashy, but he’s so good at everything that I feel he will be the deciding factor in how well the team does in the postseason.  He won’t be a star in the traditional sense of racking up points, but believe me when I say the Capitals need him to stand any chance of success.

PREDICTION

Image courtesy of usatoday.com.

Image courtesy of usatoday.com.

This is a difficult one.  I don’t see a dominant team here, but I do see a team that has been getting better, and better, and better as we get to the playoffs, and also a team that probably feels they have a lot to prove given their past lack of success.  I certainly see them getting to the 2nd round, and would give them an outside chance at getting to the Conference Finals, but I think a heavier, more well rounded team will overcome them.

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