October 8 vs. Atlanta Thrashers at Philips Arena
Time: 7:30 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2:00 pm on washingtoncaps.com
Washington Capitals (54-15-13, first in Southeast in 2009-10)
Atlanta Thrashers (35-34-13, second in Southeast in 2009-10)
The Washington Capitals break the seal on the 2010-11 season – the 36th in the franchise’s history – when they visit Atlanta to take on the Thrashers on Friday night at Philips Arena. This year’s season opener marks the fifth straight season in which Washington has opened up on the road and the third time in the last four seasons that it has done so in Atlanta.
Coming off a franchise-record shattering 121-point regular season that led to the Caps’ first-ever Presidents’ Trophy, Washington doesn’t have a lot of room for improvement over the next 82 games. But the Caps need the rigors of the regular season to add some experience to the youthful blueline and goaltending corps.
Washington will put its faith in a pair of 22-year-old goaltenders: Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. Both netminders were drafted in 2006 and both have risen steadily through the ranks since. Both have also had some issues with injuries, which is the reason for the Caps’ ripple in otherwise quiet unrestricted free agent waters, the July 2 inking of journeyman goaltender Dany Sabourin. With 57 career games played in the NHL, the 30-year-old Sabourin instantly becomes the most experienced netminder in the organization.
Varlamov will open the season on injured reserve with what he says is a groin injury, so the Caps’ investment in Sabourin is already paying dividends. The first goaltender to lead his team to back-to-back Calder Cup championships in the AHL in more than 30 years, Neuvirth has nailed down his first opening night roster spot and his first opening night starting assignment.
“It’s pretty exciting,” says Neuvirth of his impending start against the Thrashers in Friday’s opener. “It’s a big opportunity for me. It’s going to be an exciting game. I was feeling pretty good today and I feel like I am ready to go.”
Neuvirth opens the season with just 22 games worth of NHL experience, but he is a perfect 3-0 against Atlanta with a 2.01 GAA and a .944 save pct.
“I played there last year and I think I had a really good game there,” says Neuvirth. “It’s good for my confidence. It’s going to be an exciting night.”
Washington’s blueline remained remarkably intact over the last several seasons. From the day that Milan Jurcina arrived in a Feb. 1, 2007 deal with the Boston Bruins until Brian Pothier departed in a March 3, 2010 deal with the Carolina Hurricanes, the Caps relied heavily on the same group of seven defensemen: Jurcina, Pothier, Tom Poti, John Erskine, Mike Green, Jeff Schultz and Shaone Morrisonn.
In between the deal that brought Jurcina to the District and the one that sent Pothier to Carolina, those seven blueliners accounted for 86.7% of all Washington’s defensive man-games. A total of nine other rearguards accrued the rest, from Stefan Kronwall’s three games to Tyler Sloan’s 59 during that stretch of 256 games spread over four seasons.
Heading into 2010-11, Jurcina, Pothier, Shaone Morrisonn and Joe Corvo (obtained in the Pothier trade) are gone. Washington will be banking on four homegrown first-round defensemen – Schultz, Green, Karl Alzner and John Carlson – plus Poti, Erskine and Sloan.
With 787 career games played, Poti has more NHL experience than the Caps’ four homegrown first-round blueliners combined (637). The oldest of the four homegrown first-rounders is Green, who will celebrate his 25th birthday next week.
“I’ve always been the oldest guy back here for the last three and a half years,” notes Poti. “My role is pretty much the same, to try to help the young guys as best as I can, try to lead by example. I told them if they have any questions or concerns I am here to help them out any way I can.
“I think my role is pretty much the same. We’ll see a little bit of turnover this year without Brian, Juice and Mo, but we’ve got some young guys who are ready to step in and I think it will be a seamless transition for those guys.”
If Washington’s top six averages 70 games or more in 2010-11 and the Caps advance to the postseason again, it will enter the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs with a more experienced group of defenseman than the 2010 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Poti isn’t worried about the green blueline.
“Last year, who would have thought we had trouble scoring?” he queries. “That’s why we lost [in the playoffs], because we couldn’t put the puck in the net. It wasn’t that we couldn’t keep it out of the net. We couldn’t find ways to score, and that was our downfall. I think the defense did a great job as a whole last year.”
The Caps return largely the same group of forwards who helped run up the highest goal total in the league in a decade and a half. Led by Alex Ovechkin (50 goals), Alexander Semin (40) and Nicklas Backstrom (33), the Capitals had seven different players reach the 20-goal plateau in 2009-10 and all seven are back this season. At 19 goals, Green fell one tally shy of hitting 20.
Rookie center Marcus Johansson – the team’s first choice (24th overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft – is the centerpiece of a trio of newcomers to the team’s group of forwards. He is joined by rugged D.J. King and versatile Matt Hendricks.
Washington led the league in goals and in power play prowess last season, but the team’s coaching staff is seeking to upgrade its penalty killing corps and to shave the club’s goals against total this season.
The Caps showcased a more aggressive penalty-killing outfit in the pre-season, successfully snuffing out 88.9% of their foes’ manpower advantage opportunities. Washington’s penalty-killing unit was eighth in the league during the pre-season.
“We’re doing some tactical things different. Aggressiveness is one of them, says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau of the penalty killing group. “It’s a work in progress for [assistant coaches Dean Evason and Bob Woods] and I in doing this stuff. We like the direction it’s going. We’ll just see if we’ve got the personnel to continue to do this.”
Washington’s top-ranked power play remains largely unchanged. The addition of Carlson does give Boudreau another right-handed point option. The pairing of Carlson and Poti could allow Boudreau to manage the minutes of top-unit point men Ovechkin and Green, who sometimes man the points for the entire two minutes of a Washington man advantage.
“I think it’s the movement of the puck,” notes Backstrom when asked about what makes the Caps’ power play click. “All five of the guys on the unit have to work together. Make some good plays get a lot of shots, and go to the net. This is how we were best in the regular season, but we weren’t that good in the playoffs. We know we have to still work hard.”
Plenty of change has taken place on and off the ice in Atlanta since the end of last season. The Thrashers have had just one playoff appearance in 10 seasons of existence, and they’re still seeking their first ever victory in a Stanley Cup playoff game.
Don Waddell, the team’s general manager since day one of the franchise’s existence, yielded the reins to Rick Dudley. Waddell remains with the organization as team president.
Dudley is a noted scout who has been involved in the game for decades after the end of a distinguished career as a player. He helped build the 2010 Cup champion Blackhawks team, and has already started to overhaul the Atlanta roster in earnest.
Dudley hired former Buffalo Sabres teammate Craig Ramsay as the Thrashers’ new head coach for 2010-11; Ramsay replaces John Anderson, who held the position for the last two seasons.
The 59-year-old Ramsay is a longtime NHL assistant who has had two previous stints as an NHL bench boss, both of them brief. He manned the Buffalo bench for 21 games in 1986-87 and coached the Philadelphia Flyers for 28 contests in 2000-01. A Selke Trophy winner as a player, Ramsay is known as a defense-oriented coach.
For the third straight season, the Thrashers’ first-round draft choice has cracked the club’s roster as a teenager. In 2008-09, it was defenseman Zach Bogosian, chosen third overall in the 2008 draft. Last season, it was forward Evander Kane, chosen fourth overall in 2009. In 2010-11, it’s forward Alex Burmistrov, a Russian who was the eighth overall pick in 2010. Fittingly, Burmistrov will wear sweater No. 8.
Atlanta will start the season with eight defensemen on its roster, a number that has proven a bit unwieldy for Washington over the past few seasons. Dudley has said he wouldn’t mind flipping one of his blueliners for a forward at some point if a palatable del presents itself.
Like the Caps, Atlanta will be looking to a young goaltender to take charge of the goaltending reins. Ondrej Pavelec is a 23-year-old who was the team’s second-round (41st overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. He appeared in 42 games for the Thrashers last season, more than doubling the sum of his previous NHL experience in the process.
Pavelec has had difficulty with the Caps during his career. He is 1-7 with a 4.10 GAA and an .876 save pct. lifetime against Washington. Those seven losses are consecutive; Pavelec beat the Capitals the first time he faced them on Nov. 6, 2007. He made 31 saves that night to record his second NHL triumph.
Washington has won eight straight over the Thrashers and it won all six meetings last season, outscoring the Birds by a combined 29-13 in the process.
“We’ve got their lineup on the board,” says Boudreau. “They’ve got four solid lines and their defense is a lot stronger. And I like their goaltending. I think they’re going to be a lot tougher to play against.
“Any team that didn’t make the playoffs the year before is always a tough team to play against early, because they’re so full of energy because they want to turn things around. They’re going to be a tough opponent [Friday] night.”