The Washington Capitals have posted the Eastern Conference's best record in each of the past two seasons, but only have one playoff series victory to show for it.
General manager George McPhee hopes he has made the right moves to help his club finally break through.
After a Presidents' Trophy-winning season in 2009-10 ended with a loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs, Washington stepped up its play on the defensive end to go 48-23-11 a season ago. The Capitals then gave its fans some hope with a convincing five-game victory over the New York Rangers in the quarterfinals, but excitement soon gave way to disappointment after Washington was swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.
With an excellent core that is built to win now, McPhee opted against blowing things up, keeping head coach Bruce Boudreau while adding a series of role players to take on various tasks.
Washington traded its 2011 first-round pick (26th overall) to Chicago for Troy Brouwer, a top-six forward who loves to throw his weight around. Joel Ward cashed in on an excellent playoff showing with Nashville and was signed by Washington, adding another hard-working forward to the mix, while center Jeff Halpern was brought back to add some leadership to the locker room, one that took some shots from free agent departee Matt Bradley.
The Capitals added a veteran to its blue line in Roman Hamrlik, adding yet another offensive weapon to their back end, but the steal of free agency came when the club landed goaltender Tomas Vokoun for one year at a bargain price of $1.5 million.
The addition of Vokoun, arguably the best free agent goaltender available, wasn't the only crafty move McPhee made in net. He also unloaded Semyon Varlamov to Colorado, getting the Avalanche's first-round pick in 2012 in return along with a second-rounder in either 2012 or 2013.
In addition to mixing in new talent, finding balance may be the key for the Capitals. They had the league's best offense in 2009-10, but ranked just 19th with 2.67 goals per game last year. Getting the power play going is also a must after ranking 16th at 17.5 percent.
The step back on offense may have had to do with Boudreau getting his team to focus more on defense after its high-flying style faltered the year before in the playoffs. Washington ranked fourth overall in defense (2.33 goals against) last year and had the league's second-best penalty killing unit (85.6 percent).
FORWARDS - Like the rest of the offense, Ovechkin's point production took a step back in 2010-11. The sniper went from 50 goals and 109 points down to 32 tallies and 85 points in seven more games a season ago. Ovechkin also disappointed on the power play, notching just seven goals.
It marked the first time in Ovechkin's NHL career that he didn't score at last 46 goals so he should be motivated to light the lamp at a feverous pace.
Desire is not the word that best describes teammate and fellow Russian Alexander Semin, at least according to Bradley.
Often criticized for a seeming lack of work ethic, Semin had just 28 goals and 54 points in 65 regular season games before adding another four goals and six points in nine postseason contests. Bradley, though, said in a radio interview that Semin "just doesn't care" despite the fact that he could be one of the best players in the league.
Perhaps the fact that Semin is working on a one-year deal could serve as a motivator, though hockey in Russia is always a fall back option for the winger.
Boudreau will hope that the work of Brouwer and Ward will rub off on some of his players.
Brouwer (17 goals, 19 assists in 2010-11) ranked fifth in the NHL with 262 hits and has something that so far has eluded the talented Capitals: A Stanley Cup championship with the Blackhawks in 2010.
With playmaking center Nicklas Backstrom (18g, 47a) and forward Mike Knuble (24g, 16a) likely to round out the top line with Ovechkin, Brouwer could find himself on a line with Semin and fan-favorite Brooks Laich in the middle. Laich was fourth on Washington last year with 48 points, fifth in hits with 113 and posted a plus-14 rating.
Laich could also ended up giving away minutes on the second line to 20-year- old Marcus Johansson, who posted 13 goals and 14 assists in 59 games as a rookie last year.
Mathieu Perreault, 23, also enjoyed a decent season with 14 points in 35 games, but Halpern (11g, 15a with Montreal) figures to get some minutes at center as well. The Capitals could use the 35-year-old's leadership and he served as the club's captain in 2005-06 during his 438-game stay with the franchise from 1999-2006.
Ward will also have a role to play after logging 29 points, 57 blocked shots and 67 hits with Nashville last year. More importantly, he stepped up with seven goals and 13 points in 12 playoff games.
The 21-year-old Carlson took over some of the offensive duties with 30 assists and 37 points in 82 games, while Alzner, 23, was a plus-14 while playing in all 82 games as well.
A healthy Green will certainly help the power play. The blueliner had 31 goals in 2008-09, including 18 on the man advantage, and posted a career-high 76 points in 2009-10 before being limited to eight goals and 16 helpers in 49 games last year.
Dennis Wideman (10g, 30a) gives the Capitals a pair of defenders who can move the puck up on offense along with Green, and Hamrlik (5g, 29a with Canadiens) can also contribute on offense.
Washington, though, doesn't expect Tom Poti to be able to play this year due to a groin injury, leaving Washington a little short on defense. Jeff Schultz and John Erskine will try to help fill the void.
GOALTENDING - Michal Neuvirth got the bulk of the work in net during the regular season with 48 games, going 27-12-4 with a 2.45 GAA and .914 save percentage, and also made all nine starts in the postseason. He figured to be the No. 1 netminder after the trade of the oft-injured Varlamov, but that was before Vokoun came on board.
While Neuvirth, who will work under new associate goaltender coach Olie Kolzig this season, could still be Washington's goaltender of the future, Vokoun should be the main man this year.
The 35-year-old went 22-28-5 with a 2.55 GAA and .922 save percentage in 57 games with the Panthers last year, marking his eight straight season with at least 20 wins. He ranked sixth in the NHL with six shutouts and his .922 save percentage since 2005-06 is tied for the best in that span.
Also working in McPhee's favor is the fact that Vokoun is working on a one- year deal, so if confidence in Neuvirth grows, Vokoun could be an excellent trade chip. That includes the offseason, when Washington will have a window to deal away his rights.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - Even after a second straight disappointing showing in the playoffs, the Capitals still enter this season as one of the favorites to win the Cup. The hope is that last year's struggles on offense will quickly dissolve while the club will still be able to play solid defense. The return of Green could help on both ends and the lack of depth of defensive-minded blueliners could be offset by Vokoun. Washington's recent struggles may have rubbed off some of the intimidation the talented club may have had in seasons past, but perhaps that will help the Capitals finally break through in 2011-12.