The stars — Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green — have aligned. In fact, three of those four posted career highs in points this season. That slacker Ovechkin finished just three-points back from his career-best total … despite missing 10 games.
Those scoring totals translated to the standings also, as the Caps became the first non-Original Six team to break 120 points in a season, racking up a franchise-best — and league-high — 121 this season.
Yes, entering the playoffs in 2010, the Washington Capitals, the same franchise that played to a crowd of empty seats for the first two seasons after the lockout, are now the favorites to take home the Stanley Cup. To reach this point, the Caps have overcome many obstacles as a team and as individuals. But to raise the Cup, they still have a few more questions to answer.
Who’s the man in the iron mask?
Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau gave the starting nod to Jose Theodore in Game 1, but will Theo receive it in Game 2? Last season Boudreau gave Theodore the hook after the New York Rangers got into the net, and the goalie’s head, early and often in the first game of the 2009 playoffs. That was a common theme for Theo in 2009, as he fluctuated between jaw-dropping and head-scratching performances. One bad goal and he wouldn’t be able to rebound. This season, Theodore has been more consistent and more resilient. Unlike last season, when the first goal goes by him, he appears more eager to stop the next shot, instead of scared that it too may slip by.
There is no one wearing a red sweater in Verizon Center who doesn’t want Theodore to succeed. He’s gone through plenty — including the tragic death of his infant child — during his time in Washington. He has the talent to recapture his Vezina and MVP-caliber stature from a few years back. If he has the mental toughness to maintain it, the Caps will be almost impossible to beat.
Will the new kid on the block hang tough?
The missing piece has always been on defense for Washington. At the trade deadline, the Caps made a play to fill that need by acquiring D Joe Corvo from the Carolina Hurricanes to help shore up the blue line and settle what has been an unstable defense corps. Since that trade, Corvo has finished exactly one game with a positive plus/minus rating.
You could make the case that fact is an anomaly from a player generally considered to be a sound positional defenseman … unless you’ve watched him in action lately. Whether it’s a discomfort with the new environment or a slow learning curve picking up the Caps’ system, Corvo has often been out of position and frequently beaten by opposing forwards. He must be better if the Caps are to withstand the offensive attack of defending champs Pittsburgh, or just about anyone in the Western Conference if they want to win the title.
Do Semin, Green have the right stuff?
Forgive another New Kids on the Block reference, but last playoffs it seemed like Joey McIntyre flaunted a tougher game than Alex Semin and Mike Green. Both were playing hurt, but this time of year, so is 90 percent of the NHL. If the Caps want to be champions, the team’s best players need to grind out every game. Call me an optimist, but of the questions so far, I have the most confidence that this one will be answered in the affirmative.
Do you believe in curses?
When it comes to the Washington Capitals vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins, maybe you should. The Pens have squashed the Caps’ best title chances more often than not it feels like and this year, the road to the Stanley Cup again goes through Pittsburgh. As the No. 4 seed in the East, the Penguins will be the Caps’ second-round opponent if there are no upsets. And given the disparity in the Eastern Conference this season, there shouldn’t be. If Washington wants the Cup, they’ll have to put a stake in the heart of a playoff opponent that has continually risen from the dead (two games down or worse) to upend the Caps.
If this is the year, then the Caps need some solid goaltending, a stable blue line and a healthy dose of heart … and some garlic and holy water may not hurt either.