2008 was a wild ride for the Washington Capitals. And with the club currently boasting a franchise-best point total, 2009 is already looking like it will feature another frenzied spring.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the biggest Caps’ storylines right now.
From Sieve to Stone Wall: Tuesday night’s shootout shutout by Jose Theodore, which gave the Caps a 2-1 win over the hated Flyers, was huge. By stoning Simon Gagne, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, Theodore proved that he could be counted on to win them games, not simply “not lose” them while Washington’s high-flying forwards piled up the points.
As of now, all doubt has been removed that he is the team’s No. 1 goalie – something that was no certainty just a few weeks ago.
The Caps’ goaltending situation has been kind of like the hanging sword of Damocles this season. True, the team’s scoring has outpaced all in the Eastern Conference but the Boston Bruins, but inconsistent performances in net put their Stanley Cup hopes in constant jeopardy. Theodore’s performances were highly volatile. One minute he would flash his cat-like reflexes to snuff out a certain goal. The next he would be skidding out of position and flopping around like a fish on the beach while the opposition put the puck into an unguarded net.
But Brent Johnson has been the most valuable backup netminder in the NHL this year. His solid performances kept the Caps in contention and set up his team for a torrid December (11-3) with three consecutive one-goal performances against Toronto, Boston and Ottawa.
Now Theodore has regained his confidence, and his fine form, and locked down the top spot he should have owned since opening night. Moreover, with the situation now settled, the Caps no longer have to entertain a trade.
Medic!: The Caps have often looked like a M*A*S*H unit this year, with nearly every starter from opening night missing multiple games due to injury. Still, the organization’s depth (paging GM George McPhee, Mr. McPhee your Executive of the Year award is waiting) has allowed the Caps to continue their rise to the top of the Eastern Conference. Moreover, the injuries have almost helped Washington by allowing other developing players to fill the void.
Both Tomas Fleischmann and Milan Jurcina were touted as high-potential players in the past and now they’re finally realizing it. Fleischmann, aptly nicknamed Flash, had always shown “flashes” of scoring talent in the past, but little more. And while he’s sidelined with pneumonia now (of course … ), this year he emerged to become the Caps’ No. 2 goal-scoring option when Alexander Semin was injured.
Jurcina’s improvement was even more remarkable. Before the season his status on the team was in question with the assumed ascension of touted rookie Karl Alzner. Instead, Jurcina has stood tall, anchoring the Caps’ top defensive pairing when Mike Green, Tom Poti, John Erskine, Jeff Schultz and Shaone Morrisonn were down for the count. And yes, those are all five other opening-night defensive starters. And now that he’s finally unleashing that howitzer of a slap shot, he’s showing he can be a superior two-way defenseman.
Timing Is Everything: Attendance is way up this year. Nine of the last 13 home games have been sellouts and if you look around the league, the team’s timing is impeccable.
Out in Phoenix it is a complete debacle. With attendance flagging due to the economic downturn, there are rumors that the NHL is advancing the Coyotes their cut from the league’s shared revenue just so the team can meet its payroll.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Caps were the team failing at the gate, though not nearly to this extent. Had that trend continued into these times, the D.C. fans might have never seen a winning product on the ice. Heck, it might have not seen a team at all.
Onward and Upward: The Caps have the look of a Stanley Cup contender right now, but there are a few areas fans should want to see improved. Nicklas Backstrom has been terrific in the offensive zone, but he’s been subpar in the faceoff circle with a win-rate of about 46 percent. There will be times when the caps need to have their top line on the ice AND require a big face-off win. Unless Backstrom improves, Boyd Gordon or David Steckel will be the one taking those draws.