Farewell to the Capitals
The continuation of a series where Fanspeak says goodbye to the teams that have been eliminated.
What an up-and-down season for the Washington Capitals. After changing coaches, not making moves at the trading deadline, pretty much (unofficially) putting a freeze on contract extensions and barely making the playoffs, the Caps eliminated the defending champion Boston Bruins in the first round before bowing out to the New York Rangers in last night's game seven of the conference semifinals.
After undergoing an identity transplant this season, the team managed to right the ship for the playoffs. — sorta. Their biggest find was Braden Holtby, who entered the playoffs with no postseason experience and only 21 regular-season games played, but ended with a 1.95 goals against average (sixth-best in the league), a .935 save percentage (also sixth) and all seven of the Caps' wins, not to mention constant lauding by myriad members of the national media.
Furthermore, in front of Holtby, the Caps' defense allowed just 2.14 goals per game and boasted a 87.5-percent effective penalty kill. Both led to all but one game being decided by one goal — despite some inept offense and occasional boneheaded penalties and line changes.
The lack of offense, ironically, is what cost the Caps in the end. Against the Rangers and Bruins, they averaged a little more than two goals per game and only converted 18 percent of their power plays. Although their special teams play improved during the postseason, it still misfired at key moments (such as the one they received late in the third period last night when they were down by a goal) and they still didn't get shots off on odd-man breaks.
This is a team that went from a "shoot early and often (and play defense when convenient)" mentality to just the opposite: concentrating on defense and trying to muster just enough offense to win games. It nearly worked — and did win them 7 playoff games — but they certainly weren't as effective as they could have been.
For a team that went from expecting to win their division and conference, to a team that just barely squeaked into the playoffs (and broke a streak of four straight division titles) to coming just one win away from the conference finals, there is a lot to ponder from the 2011-12 season.
Other than Holtby, the best players this season were the defensive team of Karl Alzner and John Carlson and center Nicklas Backstrom, who found his form in the playoffs after missing significant time during the regular season. Backstrom was the team's best player the entire postseason.
As for captain Alex Ovechkin, it was evident that he was trying (at times) to embrace Coach Dale Hunter's system. He was attempting to block shots and was a team player when his playing time was slashed. But for the team to really excel in the future, Ovechkin will need to find a balance between his preferred firewagon style and a more defensively-responsible environment.
Finally, this could have been the end of the Alex Semin era and maybe even that of Mike Green. Semin never looked comfortable under Hunter and Green had huge moments of panic. With Holtby's emergence, Tomas Vokoun — who missed the last part of the regular season and all of the playoffs — surely won't be back. Look for more on the team's future later this week.