The puck drops on the NHL season on Thursday night when the Boston Bruins crank up their 2010-11 Stanley Cup banner to the rafters before their home opener against the Philadelphia Flyers at the TD Garden.
The Capitals had the skills to hold such a celebration this fall, but they didn’t show as much heart and grit as the Tampa Bay Lightning in last year’s playoffs and were swept to Washington-area dance clubs after Round 2.
Washington general manager George McPhee resisted the urge to make radical changes to his roster. He kept the 'C' on Alex Ovechkin's chest, hung on to Alexander Semin and left Bruce Boudreau behind the bench.
“I think we change coaches too much in this business. I think it’s easy to finger people after things don’t go the way you want them to,” McPhee told Stephen Whyno of The Washington Times. “But this happens with every organization in every sport: Automatically you go after the manager, you go after the coach.”
Under Boudreau, the Capitals have won four consecutive Southeast Division titles, a Presidents’ Trophy for the NHL’s best regular season record in 2009-10 and two Eastern Conference regular-season titles. But the Capitals have won just two playoff series in Boudreau’s four years behind the bench, and were eliminated by lower seeds each spring -- including a first-round playoff upset to eighth-seeded Montreal in 2009-10.
Boudreau taught his stacked offensive squad, fueled by Ovechkin, Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, an important lesson last season: There are two ends to a hockey rink. As a result, Washington’s scoring dipped a little bit, but they finished fourth in goals against in the NHL, also a league in which defense wins championships.
But Boudreau can’t teach them heart -- something that was scrutinized down in D.C. this summer.
“It’s time that we stepped up, grew up and became, or at least try harder to become, the leaders of this team in everything we do,” Green recently told The Washington Post. “The time is now. It has to be. At the end of the day, we play the game to win a Stanley Cup, not for anything else. We’ve wasted enough time.”
Added Ovechkin, a two-time Hart Trophy winner (which is awarded to the league’s MVP): “You never know what’s going to happen, how many chances, opportunities you’re going to get. How many players was a great player but never won a Stanley Cup? A lot. I don’t want to be that. None of us do. We must do better.”
The team’s no-longer-young core will get at least one more chance to bring a Stanley Cup to Washington. That’s because McPhee opted against breaking up the band, instead supplementing it with solid background performers. The Capitals scored veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun at a discount price. They brought in Roman Hamrlik to beef up the back end. And they added offensive grit in the form of Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward.
There will likely be last-minute tinkering at the trade deadline, but even if McPhee stands pat, it appears the Capitals are better equipped for a deep postseason run. And if they fall short again, expect major changes.
That’s a worry for another day, perhaps one in the middle of April. For now, the Capitals have the world’s most electrifying hockey player in Ovechkin, a fine supporting cast and a legit shot at a Stanley Cup.
They also have another clean sheet of ice on which to rewrite their legacies with the Capitals.
“These months are to build our team for playoffs,” Ovechkin told The Post. “We must all be ready at the start.”