Injuries and struggles played havoc with Washington’s lineup over the first half of the 2012-13 regular season, but there has been a lot more continuity in the Capitals’ lineup over the second half of the campaign. Here’s a quick thumbnail look at the Caps’ NHL depth chart heading into the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs.
G Braden Holtby
Holtby started 31 of Washington’s final 37 games of the regular season, posting a 22-8-1 record with four shutouts, a 2.27 GAA and a .929 save pct. during that stretch. Last spring, Holtby was one of the primary stories of the early rounds of the playoffs when he backstopped the Caps past defending Stanley Cup champion Boston and to within a game of the Eastern Conference final.
Those 14 games of postseason experience from last spring are handy, but only to a point.
“They’re good to have, obviously,” says Holtby of his previous experience. “Every little bit of experience helps. At the same time, it’s basically thrown out the window when the puck drops. It doesn’t help. It doesn’t make the game easier or harder or anything. It’s the same preparation that you have to do, the same game that you have to prepare for. It’s going to be nice that I’ve been in that situation before, but it’s not like I’m taking that for granted. I’m still focusing on what I have to do to be successful.”
G Michal Neuvirth
Neuvirth played sporadically during the regular season, but like Holtby, he was excellent once the team in front of him had a firm grasp on coach Adam Oates’ system. Neuvirth was 3-1-1 with a 2.37 GAA and a .930 save pct. in five March-April starts.
Two springs ago, Neuvirth was coming off a 27-win season and he helped Washington vanquish the Rangers in the first round, going 4-1 with a shutout, a 1.38 GAA and a .946 save pct. in that series.
“I remember it was a pretty tough series,” recalls Neuvirth. We won in five, but in Game 4 we won in double OT. We were up 3-1 [in the series] and we finished it up at home.
“[The Rangers] have got great goaltending and they play great defensive hockey. It’s going to be a good series.”
LD Karl Alzner
Alzner played every game for the third straight season. Split from longtime defense partner John Carlson early in the campaign, Alzner has been skating alongside Mike Green since the latter’s return from injury in late March.
Alzner’s game is more cerebral than physical and relies on positioning. For the third straight season, Alzner averaged more than 20 minutes a night. He’s likely to assume a heavy workload in the series ahead.
Three springs ago, Alzner got his first taste of Stanley Cup play when he made his playoff debut in Game 7 of the series between Washington and Montreal.
“It’s a bit of a weird feeling,” says Alzner of stepping into a Game 7 and making his playoff debut. “You’re nervous because those games are usually pretty tight: 1-0 or 2-1. If you’re on the ice for that one goal against that turns out to be the winner, that’s something that you take with your for the entire summer. It’s not the ideal situation, but at the same time it throws you right into the fire and everything after that is a little easier.”
RD Mike Green
Green’s renaissance has been as brilliant as Ovechkin’s. After two injury-plagued campaigns in which he totaled 11 goals and 31 points in 81 games, Green led all NHL blueliners with 12 goals and he also totaled 26 points in 35 games. As with Ovechkin and Backstrom, this is Green’s best offensive season since 2009-10.
Green scored two goals in his first Stanley Cup playoff game in 2008, and he has played in 50 of Washington’s 51 postseason games since that season.
“The experiences have really helped me out,” says Green, looking back on his prior playoff experience. “You know exactly what to expect now and I think you can prepare yourself mentally for this stretch rather than just being gung-ho about the whole first game or series. I see it further down the road now. Play a certain way so that you can maintain your good play rather than having one good game and one bad game or something like that. Consistency is everything in playoffs.”
LD John Erskine
Erskine’s career was resurrected this year as he went from being mostly a healthy scratch who averaged just over 12 minutes a night on the occasions that he did get into the lineup to being a top-four guy averaging a career best 18:28 per night.
The elder statesman of Washington’s top six on defense, Erskine has changed the way he plays the game in order to survive in the league; many of the defensemen who played his style of game a decade ago have gone the way of the dinosaur.
“I have to play angles,” says Erskine of his game nowadays, “I can’t be running and gunning at people. I’ve got to be more patient and just play angles, let them come to me rather than lunging out at someone and chasing them from behind.”
RD John Carlson
Carlson played in every game for Washington for the third straight season, averaging a career high 23:01 per night in the process. He finished tied for third in the NHL with 123 blocked shots, and was second among Washington defensemen with 22 points.
Expect Carlson to be a workhorse in the postseason, and expect him to deliver valuable contributions at both ends of the ice. He has two goals and four points in a dozen career playoff games against the Rangers, and has four goals and eight points in a dozen regular season tilts against the Blueshirts. Four of those goals and seven of those points (playoffs and regular season combined) have been recorded at Madison Square Garden.
“I really like it,” says Carlson of MSG. “It’s close to home for me, too, but it’s one of the most historic arenas in the league. It’s a cool place to play and I’ve been lucky enough to do well there.”
LD Jack Hillen
Among all left-handed defensemen who have skated in at least 20 games for the Caps since the last lockout in 2004-05, only one has managed to exceed the .39 points per game that Hillen provided the Capitals in 2012-13. Tom Poti averaged .41 points per game in 2007-08, his first season in Washington.
After missing most of the first half of the season with an injury sustained on opening night, Hillen carved out a role for himself after returning to the lineup in mid-March. He averaged 17:36 a night, moved the puck efficiently and Washington was 16-5-2 in the 23 games in which he was in the lineup.
Hillen got his first taste of the postseason with Nashville last spring, getting into two games. He’s ready for more.
“Last year was good, but I felt like I was just biding time until Hal Gill got back,” says Hillen. “This year, I feel like I am more a part of it. This year I have a role and I’m counted on to play that role and with more responsibility, it feels good. I feel like I have more confidence. I’m more excited for this year’s playoffs. Even though last year was my first, I am more excited for this year’s playoffs.”
RD Steve Oleksy
Oleksy was one of the best stories of this or any other season, earning a contract and a recall from AHL Hershey and forging out a regular role for himself after making his NHL debut at the age of 27 this season. Oleksy enters the playoffs with no postseason experience and just 28 games of regular season action to his credit, during which he averaged 17:16 a night.
“Just the intensity,” says Oleksy when asked what his 28-game baptism has taught him. “The intensity it takes shift in and shift out and just how hard it is to win in this league. When things are going your way, sometimes you overlook how tough it is and how hard every team is playing. There are now easy games in this league, especially in the shortened season where the two points were so valuable down the stretch. There are no days off, that’s for sure. That’s what I’ve learned. The intensity – day in and day out – you have to bring that.”
LD Tom Poti
After missing most of the last two seasons with injuries, Poti has been in and out of the lineup with injuries and played in just 16 of the 48 games in 2012-13.
He is healthy and ready if the Caps should need him. Poti has played in 51 career playoff games, 27 of those with the Caps. He had a goal and four points against his former Rangers’ team in Game 6 of the 2009 ECQF series against New York.
LD Jeff Schultz
Schultz hasn’t been in the lineup since March 31. He skated
in 26 games during the season, averaging 14:15 in those contests.
Schultz has played in 29 of Washington’s 51 playoff games over the past five seasons and is ready if needed this spring.
Johansson was bothered by a concussion early in the season, but once he returned to the lineup in a March 10 game against the Rangers his game show vast signs of improvement.
Johansson’s goal production has remained steady in his three NHL seasons, but his point production has risen steadily from .39 per game as a rookie to .65 this season.
“[Johansson] does a great job of figuring out Ovi and Backy and what they need and where to be,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “And it’s not an easy job. It’s not, because obviously Alex is the stealth, looking to hide, and he’s not always the easiest guy to read. I think Marcus has done a great job with that and his game is growing as well.”
Backstrom seemed to be ailing a bit at the start of the season; he suffered an upper body injury on Dec. 26 while playing in the KHL during the NHL lockout. Like his linemates, Backstrom was on fire down the stretch. The center displayed his usual quiet brilliance all over the ice, returning to the point-per-game level and playing in all 48 games.
Backstrom’s .83 assists per game in 2012-13 matches his previous single-season best, established in 2009-10.
“I would say the way we’ve gone in the last month, month and a half,” says Oates of Backstrom, “Nicky’s been a huge, huge part of it. I think his game is elevated. I think having Marcus back and playing really good hockey has helped and Alex obviously having some success on the power play. Confidence is an amazing thing, how it helps you. He doesn’t get the accolades; he’s more under the radar, which I think he likes. Ovi is the guy that jumps into the glass, and that’s the way it works. He’s quite comfortable with it, but obviously he is our man, too.”
While the point totals weren’t there, it was evident early this season that Ovechkin was a different player on the ice this season. Permanently shifting from the left to the right side after the season’s first seven games, Ovechkin’s nightly touches, scoring chances, shot attempts and level of involvement increased immediately and were clearly visible to open eyes. He was one of the best players on the ice for either side in the Caps’ Feb. 7 5-2 loss in Pittsburgh, a setback that dropped the team to 2-8-1 on the season.
While his radar was a bit off in the initial games after making the shift, Ovechkin caught fire and helped carry the Caps to a sixth straight playoff berth with his torrid play – 23 goals and 36 points in 23 games – over the final six weeks of the season. He averaged .67 goals per game, his best rate since a .69 mark in 2009-10.
“He’s obviously playing very good hockey,” says Oates. “His linemates are playing really good. Our power play has clicked. I think he has confidence. Putting him at right wing, our goal was to get him more touches with the puck and I think that is happening for him. And because of that, he’s involved in the game more.
“For him to change positions and having the success he has for himself and for the team shows how unselfish he is. He has been a sponge. We’ve been talking every day as much as possible, as much as he can handle just to try to provide information for him.
“I think he is more dangerous now than ever because he is more involved in the game and he is such a weapon and his physical attributes are so unique that they have to worry about him every shift. Five-on-five he is more involved in the game. Power play hasn’t changed at all for him since he came into the league; he is still in the same spot so he is going to get his one-timers. I want him to have to puck as much as possible.
“It’s obviously been an adjustment for him and for his linemates as well. Because now he’s got the puck more and they need to learn where they have to go now, as opposed to them doing the work before.”
Erat came to Washington from the Predators in an April 3 trade. He missed a few contests with a lower body injury, and has posted a goal and three points in nine games since the deal went down.
During the better part of the last decade in Nashville, Erat was a legitimate top six forward who routinely skated 18 minutes a night and played in all situations. He’s still grasping the nuances of Oates’ system here in the District, drawing five minutes a night less with the Caps as he does.
“The first couple of games,” says Erat, “it was tough coming from another team and experiencing the different system, hockey, rinks and everything. But I got used to it pretty quick. Now I just have to focus on the playoffs.”
In the final games of the season, Erat showed signs of developing some chemistry with linemates Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer. There’s a great deal of upside to Erat’s game. He has a good deal of skill and is adept at protecting the puck in the offensive zone. As the trio starts to read each other better and Erat gains Oates’ confidence, he could be a plus factor in these playoffs.
Ribeiro joined the Caps this season and immediately and capably filled a chasm that existed in the middle of the Washington lineup for longer than most care to remember. With Backstrom and Ribeiro both producing at the rate of a point per game or better, the Caps had a pair of centers with that distinction for the first time in 27 years, since Bengt Gustafsson and Alan Haworth turned the trick in 1985-86.
Ribeiro tied for the league lead in power play points, picking up more than half (27 of 49) of his points on the man advantage. He hasn’t played in the postseason since 2008, but he was a huge factor for the Stars that spring with three goals and 17 points in 18 games.
“Since [Erat] got back, it took us a few games to know what we like and we don’t like,” says Ribeiro of his line’s developing chemistry. “He’s a guy who likes to cycle the puck and make plays with it. We got better in the last few games and created chances. He is a quick guy, too. He is quick on the forecheck to create turnovers and we get so many chances on turnovers that we created. We’re getting close to knowing what we’re doing out there, and feeling the puck and playing in the offensive zone a lot more than in our defensive zone.”
Brouwer had a career season, tallying 19 times in 47 games and scoring seven power play goals. He finished second on the team in goals and third in scoring, exceeding his goal total and matching his point total from 82 games in the previous season.
The secret to Brouwer’s game this season has been a simple one: he’s dealing in volume. He averaged 1.58 shots on goal per game over the course of 320 NHL games coming into this season. Adopting the mentality of a sniper, Brouwer bumped that rate to 2.36 shots on goal per game in 2012-13.
As one of the Caps’ most physical forwards, Brouwer is also expected to be a factor in his own end of the ice. New York is a team that likes to establish a forecheck and use that to fuel its offensive attack. For the Caps, neutralizing that forecheck will be a factor in their success in this series.
“Make sure that they’re dumping the puck without much speed,” says Brouwer. “When they come through the neutral zone, try to slow them down as much as possible, kind of like we did to Winnipeg all year long. Those fast forwards want to chip the puck in. They’re all big guys; they’re all physical. Anytime we can limit the hits on our defensemen and make it so they can go back and break the puck out clean, we’re going to do a lot better.”
After registering the first 20-goal campaign of his career in 2011-12, Chimera’s production dipped to three goals in 47 games in 2012-13. Although his goal production was down, he did chip in with 11 assists and his .30 points per game figure was on par with his 2010-11 season (.32) and not too far south of his career average (.38).
Chimera had two goals and four points in his final seven games of the season, and he has five goals and seven points in a dozen career playoff games against the Rangers. The biggest of those tallies was a double-overtime game-winner at Madison Square Garden in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series between the two teams in 2011, capping off a third-period Caps comeback from a 3-0 deficit to take a 4-3 victory and a 3-1 series lead.
“I love playing there,” says Chimera of MSG. “It’s a great atmosphere. It’s a big stage and you want to rise up to that big stage. It’s a fun building to play in and it’s going to be a fun building to play in during the playoffs.”
Perreault’s line was consistently solid down the stretch for the Capitals. His trio forechecked well, forced turnovers and created scoring chances while the Caps were on a roll during the month of April. Perreault’s line scuffled a bit against the Rangers the last time the two teams met on March 24; the fourth Washington line ended up drawing more ice time and being a bigger factor in that game’s outcome.
The Caps will need Perreault and his mates to come into the postseason without missing a beat, and Perreault is eager for the challenge. He got his first taste of playoff hockey as the Caps’ fourth line pivot in four games against the Bruins last spring, but was benched for the last 10 games of Washington’s springtime foray.
“I’m excited,” says Perreault. “I think in the last couple of games our line has been really good and this is what I hope we can do during the playoffs, be a third line that can produce and help a team. That’s how you win a Stanley Cup, with all your lines. And for me, it’s going to be something different that I didn’t really experience last year. I was a fourth liner and I got out of the lineup after a couple games. It’s a different mindset for me this year and I’m very excited.”
Fehr signed a one-year deal for short money on the eve of the abbreviated training camp this season, and it proved to be a shrewd signing for the Capitals. Slowly working his way from a healthy scratch to the fourth line to a larger role, Fehr totaled nine goals, 17 points and a plus-18 in his last 33 games.
Fehr has shown a knack for scoring big goals throughout his pro career, and he had two overtime game-winners for Washington during the regular season. He has four goals in his last 11 Stanley Cup playoff games and is one of those guys us media types will look for to grab the spotlight at some point in the postseason with a key goal in a critical situation.
As a big-bodied winger, he’s also a guy who will seek to stake out real estate in the New York end.
“They’re a real physical team and they play the body really well in their zone,” says Fehr. “So I think it’s going to be important for us to fight off checks and try to beat guys to the net. They try to pin you against the boards. Just try to keep our legs moving and keep fighting for position.”
Hendricks played in all 48 games, contributed five goals and 73 penalty minutes to the cause, was effective playing in the middle or on the left, won 56.8% of his draws and gave the Caps a needed element of sandpaper.
Everyone remembers that Joel Ward scored the Game 7 overtime game-winner against Boston in the Caps’ 2-1 win over the Bruins last spring, but it was Hendricks who supplied Washington’s first goal of that game.
“We’ve talked about that as a line,” says Hendricks, “This is a time that we need to be better against whoever we’re playing against. We need to be difference makers in every game. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a goal in every game, but it needs to be a great energy shift, it needs to be a nice hit, it needs to be a good defensive play. But we need to be better than whoever we are on the ice against.”
Beagle totaled two goals and eight points while playing in all 48 games. He won 56.1% of his draws and led all regular Washington forwards with an average of 2:07 in shorthanded ice time.
Beagle is the Caps’ right-handed go-to guy in the face-off circle, and he is a diligent penalty killer and checking center. His average of 12:06 per night in ice time is more than that of most fourth-line forwards around the league.
For Beagle, this series against New York represents a chance to atone for what he perceives as a mistake he made in losing a defensive zone draw on the kill in the waning seconds of regulation in the Caps’ 3-2 loss at New York in Game 5 last spring.
“Last year I lost a crucial face-off which has been haunting me,” Beagle declares. “It haunted me all summer. I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Ward had a strong regular season, totaling eight goals and 20 points in 39 games. His average of .51 points per game in 2012-13 is the best mark of his career. He missed the last nine games because of a knee injury but is ready to return to the lineup in Game 1 against the Rangers.
The Hendricks-Beagle-Ward unit was arguably the Caps’ best line in Washington’s 3-2 shootout win over the Rangers at MSG on March 24. Hendricks gave a lot of credit to Ward for the unit’s performance after the game that night.
“I think when Beags and I are playing with Wardo, he’s a big body,” said Hendricks. “We can kind of use him as a kickstand, if you know what I mean. We rely on him big time for all those rims and all those plays in the corners behind their net. He’s so big and strong on the puck that it’s hard to get pushed around.
“Our line, we try to stick to the system as much as we can and let it reward us with the other team rimming it to us, making turnovers. I wish we would have had [a goal] tonight, we had some opportunities for sure.”
Volpatti was an effective fourth-line presence for the Caps in the month of April, but he’ll start the postseason in the press box because of Ward’s return to health. Volpatti has yet to play a Stanley Cup playoff game, but he’s anxious to do so.
“Unfortunately for me last year, I was close to getting back in time for the playoffs,” says Volpatti. “I’m really looking forward to experiencing that. I had some experience in the American League, but this is another level. Being a part of even the practices around playoff time you can feel that aura. I’m looking forward to it.”
Wolski hasn’t played much in the season’s second half. He had a goal and three points in his first career Stanley Cup playoff game as a 20-year-old in 2006, and he was tied for the New York Rangers’ team scoring lead (three points) when the Caps ousted the Blueshirts in the first round in 2011.
Laich was limited to nine games this season because of a groin injury, and he is currently recovering from subsequent surgery. He is not expected to be ready to return until the second round – if the Caps are able to move past New York – but the playoffs seem to have greater healing powers for some. We’ll see.