The Washington Capitals returned to work on Monday at 2p.m. following a week off for the All-Star break, but unlike last season, Washington entered the break on a winning note.
Their 5-3 win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins last Tuesday night allowed Washington to breathe a little sigh of relief as they entered the break, which is actually seven games past the halfway point of the season.
The Capitals are in first place in the Southeast division, which makes them the No.3 seed in the eastern conference. With a 26-19-3 record, Washington is tied with the Florida Panthers (22-15-11) at 55 points in 48 games. The Capitals have six more non-shootout victories to claim the tiebreaker, but the two teams are scheduled to meet on Wednesday in Sunrise Florida in what is sure to be a battle for Southeast supremacy.
The Washington Capitals entered the 2011-12 season with great expectations, and like the character Pip from the Charles Dickens novel of the same name, have experienced the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows through the first 48 games.
Washington was very active during the summer free-agency period, acquiring what many thought were going to be the final pieces of a Stanley Cup puzzle that Washington has never been able to completely put together. However, to say that the acquired pieces and the rest of the team have not exactly performed up to desired or predicted expectations would be an understatement of almost epic proportions.
Under the guidance of Head Coach Bruce Boudreau, Washington began the season a franchise best 7-0, and was 9-2 as last season’s loss to Tampa during the second round of the playoffs seemed as if it occurred seasons ago. However, like last season’s loss in the playoffs, trouble swept in and claimed the 14th coach in franchise history.
Following the Caps 9-2 start, Washington posted a 5-9-1 record from Oct-27 through Nov-26. This included losses of 7-1 to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and a 5-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres in which both teams were playing with a significant amount of starters missing from the lineup, 16 combined.
General Manager George McPhee felt as if Boudreau had finally lost his locker room, and on Monday Nov-28, finally fired the man that replaced Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving 2007.
“Bruce emptied the tank, he gave it everything,” General Manager George McPhee said. “He pushed every button he could push.” In his four-plus seasons behind the Capitals’ bench, Boudreau posted a regular season record of 201-88-40 in 329 regular season games and in his first season as head coach won the Jack Adams award as the league’s top coach.
Boudreau became the fastest head coach to win 200 games on Nov-21 with a 4-3 win over the Phoenix Coyotes, but like most bench bosses to walk behind the Capitals during the regular season, Boudreau's playoff record wasn't as solid as his regular season mark.
Washington won just two post season series’, both over the New York Rangers. The Caps had two colossal collapses in the post season under Boudreau. In 2010 against Montreal, Washington became the first No.1 seed to blow a 3-1 series lead, and lose to a No.8 seed. The Capitals bowed out in four games to Tampa Bay in the conference semifinals last season, and in the process became the first No.1 seed to be swept during the second round of the playoffs.
None of Boudreau’s teams advanced beyond the second round, and lost three game sevens on home ice.
Boudreau's replacement was long time Caps tough man and former team captain. Dale Hunter.
Huntsy as he was known during his 12 seasons in D.C, was the fastest head coach in OHL history to record 300 and 400 career wins, but came with no experience in the AHL, let alone the NHL. Upon taking over Hunter informed his team and the media, “I’m a players’ coach, but the players will know when I’m mad at them. If you continuously make mistakes, there will be repercussions.”
Since Hunters arrival, the Capitals are 14-10-2, but playing a more disciplined style of all-around hockey. Team Captain and superstar goal scorer Alex Ovechkin, who has been mired in a slump that was approaching almost 120 games, has begun to appear on the score sheet with more regularity, while playing a more disciplined physical game.
Like most NHL teams, the Capitals have had their fair share of injuries as All-Star defenseman Mike Green has played in just 10-games this season. Green has battled a groin injury that recently required abdominal surgery to fix. The Capitals also spent the final 10-games prior to the All-Star break without their leading scorer, center Nicklas Backstrom.
Backstrom, who has a history of migraines, was elbowed in the head by Renee Bourque, then of the Calgary Flames back on Jan-3, and has been absent with concussion like symptoms.
Washington has 34-games remaining once they return to action and General Manager George McPhee just 28-days before the trading deadline. How the Capitals perform during the 14-games preceding the deadline will determine what the roster looks like for the 24-games following it.
Here are the grades for each unit, the coaching staff, as well as the MVP, and the most disappointing Caps player for the first half of the season.