Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Your 2009-2010 Washington Capitals Preview

So as you’ve probably noticed from our Season Preview looking at all the other teams, everybody has questions hanging over them heading into the season. Reading previews for the Caps heading into 2009-2010, most question the Caps goaltending and defense. The Caps are starting off the season with a 3-headed monster in net; Jose "Alvin, Simon," Theodore, Semyon "the Saviour" Varlamov, and Michal "Bebe" Neuvirth. Unless something downright crazy happens, Theodore won’t be here next year and could be gone at some point this season for a variety of reasons. That would leave two rookies to carry the load and stop acting like a rookie has never ever in the history of the NHL backstopped a team to the Stanley Cup. While it has been awhile since the Caps have not had a settled #1 goaltender heading into the season, there is simply too much talent in net right for this position to be a total failure, though there will be those who will quickly point to it if things don't work out.

The defense on the other hand is better than advertised. No, they’re not a shutdown defense, but they get the job done. We admit, we never thought a team that had Pavel Kubina as a shutdown defender could win the Cup, yet that’s exactly what happened in 2004. As much as we rag on John "Coach's Pet" Erskine Bowles, the Caps really don’t have better options at this position and must make do with it. General Manager George McPhee tried to get Chris Pronger from Anaheim but properly balked at the high asking price. Remember he tried to land Zdeno Chara too but he wasn’t interested at the time. Though you have to wonder if that would still be the case today.

The thing however that everybody needs to remember is that there were questions about the goaltending and defense heading into last year and yet in spite of them the Caps; cruised on into another division title, racked up 108 points in the standings, and despite facing a bad and obvious hose job, got to Game 7 in the Second Round and should have advanced further in the playoffs. For all the yelling and screaming about this team, from the fans McPhee must be doing something right considering just two years ago the Caps had their second consecutive 70 point season and are now considered serious contender for the Stanley Cup.

Don't get us wrong, there is some legitimate concern on the back end, but that isn’t what we see dogging the Caps heading into this season.

First of all, do the Caps have enough maturity to win? We happen to think that the biggest problem the Caps had in the First Round against the Rangers was a lack of maturity which is why they fell behind 3-1 and needed seven games to advance. While there are fewer rookies and second year players in critical positions this year, this team is still very young in its core. Alexander "Slappy" Semin, is the oldest of the bunch and he’s going to be 25 in March. The players need to stop worrying about their goal celebrations, hair styles, automobiles, and partying and need to concentrate on winning. Yes, part of what makes this team so much fun to watch is their youthful enthusiasm. We happen to think that they can keep a good bit of it but still bear down enough to win it all. The Caps could really use serious veteran leadership to help this come along. While having Sergei (#3) Fedorov around was nice, it was clear that his effect on the younger players had waned as last season wore on. People also forget he too was rather flamboyant in his youth, though not to the extent of some of our guys.

Secondly, to the Caps have the desire to win? You might think that is the same as maturity but it isn’t. Those of us in the D.C. area know very well what you get when you have a team that talks about winning more than actually doing it. And the best example we can come up with in terms of desire is an NFL Greatest Games we sometimes come across. It chronicles the 1983 NFC Championship game between the Washington Redskins and the San Francisco 49ers. The Redskins won that game 24-21 after blowing a 21 point lead in the fourth quarter to earn a trip to Super Bowl XVIII. The 25 yard game winning field goal with 40 seconds left was set up by two controversial penalties on the Redskins final drive of the game. In the special that runs on ESPN and NFL Network from time to time, members of the 49ers state that their anger over losing that game the way they did spurred them to an 18-1 record and a Super Bowl XIX win the following season. We’ve all heard about the angry text messages that Bruce Boudreau received after the Penguin Scum were handed the Cup back in June, do the 2009-2010 Caps have the same anger that the 1984 49ers did? If they do, this could be a very special season in D.C. But make no mistake, desire will have to be just as a big part of this as maturity and luck because unlike some teams in the NHL, the Stanley Cup will not be handed to the Caps on a silver platter. The Caps are going to have to earn every bit of it should they end up winning the Cup this season.

So how do the Caps get there? Well first they’ll need a strong start out of the gate which won’t be easy with their early schedule. Four of the first five and six of the first ten opponents made the playoffs last year and are expected to be in the playoffs again this year. Non-playoff teams Toronto and Nashville won’t be easy games either, at least at the start of the season. While we don’t expect anybody to take the Caps lightly, the Caps need to lay out early this year that they are serious about winning this year. The Caps will also need continued focus all season long which also won’t be easy with key players heading off to the Olympics in February and others wanting to join them, how much of a distraction will that be? And while the Caps can’t backslide down the stretch like they did last year, though a tougher schedule at the end of this season should prevent that, they also can’t play lackadaisically like they did against teams like Tampa and the New York Islanders all too often a year ago. Furthermore, the Caps have to stay healthy, too many injuries started to pile up late in the season and in the playoffs last year. With the salary cap and waiver process, the team’s depth will eventually take a hit. Though we will admit, there’s not much the Caps can do about injuries other than wish for good luck and fast healing.

The NHL likes to run a marketing slogan, is this the year? After spending the first three years on this pathetic excuse for a blog downplaying the Caps chances and expectations, this year, we aren’t. Folks, there’s no hiding it, this team is good, very good. It isn’t perfect, no team in this league is, but the 2009-2010 Washington Capitals have the best chance of winning the Stanley Cup since the Caps teams of the mid-1980’s. And while the offense is as good as it has ever been, this is not a team that is going to blow opponents out 12-2 every night. And we guarantee you a stretch of poor play at some point this season with some mind boggling losses thrown in for good measure. We might even have to pull a Houdini act in one round of the playoffs to get by. But folks, there’s no reason not to expect the Caps in the Stanley Finals this season nor should we be laughed at for having dreams of a Stanley Cup parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in June 2010.

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