October 1 vs. Boston Bruins at TD Garden
Time: 7:00 pm
Radio: WFED 1500AM, WWFD 820 AM and XM
Pre-Game: Pre-Cap pre-game podcast at 2 p.m.
Washington Capitals (50-24-8)
Boston Bruins (53-19-10)
The Washington Capitals open the 36th season in their history on Thursday night in Boston when they take on the Bruins at TD Garden. The game pits two of the NHL’s five teams that registered 50 or more wins in 2008-09.
The Oct. 1 opening date matches the earliest in franchise history; Washington opened the 1997-98 season with a 4-1 win over the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Oct. 1, 1997. The Caps went on to the only Stanley Cup Final appearance in franchise history that season.
Boston was the only Eastern Conference club to finish the 2008-09 season with a better record than the Caps. The Bruins earned the top seed in the east with 116 points. The Caps were second with 108. Washington ousted the New York Rangers in the first round of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs but fell to eventual Cup champ Pittsburgh in the second round, falling in Game Seven after having the Penguins in a 2-0 hole early in the series.
With the off-season additions of veteran forwards Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison, and the good health of defenseman Brian Pothier and Chris Clark, the Caps believe they have improved upon last season’s stellar squad.
Clark is thrilled to be back at peak health and ready to get the regular season rolling.
“Maybe at this time last year,” the Caps’ captain says, when asked if he’s ever been as excited to get a season started. “But maybe a little more this year because of what happened with the team last year and how far we went. It’s a tough way to lose, especially to a team we could have beat and we should have beat, and they ended up winning the whole thing. We know we have a good team and we just added some depth to our team so I think I’m as excited as anybody.”
It’s hard to argue with that premise. The 2008-09 Capitals were beset by injuries throughout the campaign, but still managed the best point total in franchise history. With some improvement on the parts of some of the team’s young nucleus and reasonably good health, the 2009-10 Capitals could exceed last year’s regular season standards. But no one is thinking of or aiming for the Eastern Conference final or a 109-point season; the Caps want what they’ve never had: the Stanley Cup.
“Last year we had to really step up and be one of the better teams in the league,” says goaltender Jose Theodore, “which we did. This year, obviously the pressure is we’ve got to take it to the next level. And that’s not as much during the season I think, it’s more we’re talking about the playoffs. It’s all about building the season toward the playoffs. With the players we have now, we’re going to have to make it to the next level.”
Theodore will start in goal for Washington on Thursday in Boston, becoming the first Caps goaltender to start back-to-back season openers since Olie Kolzig in 2005-06 and 2006-07.
“Everybody’s excited,” says Caps defenseman Milan Jurcina, an ex-Bruin. “We played some preseason games, too, but it’s not the same as the regular season. We don’t have our whole lineup in the preseason. It’s going to be something special and everybody in the dressing room is waiting for the real thing, for the season to start. We have to start from the beginning and get ready for the whole season. It’s not going to be easy, but if we want to win a championship we’ve got to do it.”
The 2009-10 NHL season has a two-week break built in to accommodate the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. For Jurcina and several other Capitals, this season could include 100 or more games – including playoffs – of NHL hockey, plus another handful of highly competitive Olympic contests. Jurcina says he doesn’t worry about the physical toll that much hockey could take on his body.
“I don’t think you can do anything special physically, to get ready physically,” declares Jurcina. “It’s 70% mental and 30% physical. You just have to be ready mentally. Just do your relaxing during the summer so you’re ready mentally. That’s the main thing.
“You’re doing what you love to do; you’re playing hockey. That’s always fun. It’s better playing games than practicing. It’s better to get into shape and stay in shape in game mode than in practice. Everybody wants to play more games, especially NHL or Olympic games.”
For the Caps, the goal is to play more games in May and June. Two series worth. And to win their last game.
Washington is well stocked for the long run. Knuble and Morrison were the marquee off-season additions, but the Caps have some promising players in their system and a strong cadre of veteran pros bubbling under as well. The AHL Hershey Bears and ECHL South Carolina Stingrays both won championships last season, so the Caps have some quality reinforcements to call upon if the injury bug bites hard again.
Clark believes this may be the deepest group he has been with. Washington had some difficult roster decisions to make this fall in order to get down to the 23-man roster limit, and the Capitals lost left wing Chris Bourque, who was claimed on waivers by Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
“I think so, just depth-wise,” says Clark, when asked if the 2009-10 Caps would be the deepest organization he has been with. “It doesn’t seem fair sometimes that a guy is good enough to be in the NHL but can’t be here. But we can only put so many guys on a roster. If they were on 20 other teams, they’d probably be in the NHL right now. So I do feel bad a little bit for the guys who could have been here but aren’t. But you can’t go through a season without injuries here and there, and stuff happens. So those guys will get their shot, and what’s good about them is they know our system. They know how to play when they come up here like you saw last year, they stepped in and we won just as many games with them as without them.”
Like the Capitals, the Bruins got as far as Game 7 of the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs before they were eliminated last spring. Boston’s exit came in overtime of that seventh and deciding game; Carolina’s Scott Walker sent the B’s home for the summer and the Hurricanes on to the Eastern Conference final where they bowed out meekly at the hands of the Penguins.
Boston was second in the NHL in goal scoring last season, but the Bruins dealt Phil Kessel – the team’s leading goal scorer last season with 36 – to division rival Toronto last month. The Bruins will look to a healthy Marco Sturm and a full season from veteran winger Mark Recchi to help replace the offensive void Kessel leaves.
The Bruins’ off-season moves amounted to tweaks of what is already a top-notch roster. The B’s brought in fourth-line energy forward Steve Begin and veteran defenseman Derek Morris. Minor leaguers Vladimir Sobotka, Johnny Boychuk and Tuukka Rask also cracked the opening night roster, but the rest of the team is largely the same group that paced the Eastern Conference by eight points last season.
Notes: The last time the Caps opened the season against Boston was an Oct. 8, 1987 game at the old Boston Garden. The Bruins took that tilt by a 4-3 score.