The 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.
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.
Still, Washington has an excellent core that is led by sniper Alex Ovechkin and is built to win now. That's why Caps general manager George 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 also 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.
However, in a surprising move, Boudreau revealed that Michal Neuvirth, and not Vokoun, will start tonight's game. The 23-year-old Neuvirth was 27-12-4 with a 2.45 goals-against average for Washington last year.
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.
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. The two-time Hart Trophy winner will have to regain his MVP-caliber form this season if Washington wants to make a deeper postseason run.
Ovechkin left the team earlier this week to return to Russia for the funeral of his uncle, but Washington's captain is back in D.C. and is expected to play this evening.
The Hurricanes started their season on home ice, but were dealt a 5-1 setback by Tampa Bay on Friday night. Steve Downie, Adam Hall and Ryan Malone each scored a third-period goal to lead the Lightning to the lopsided victory at RBC Center.
The Lightning eliminated Carolina from playoff contention with a 6-2 victory on the final day of the 2010-11 regular season, but the Hurricanes were denied a measure of revenge Friday.
Jeff Skinner, who won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie last season, tallied Carolina's lone goal during the first period, while Cam Ward stopped 29 shots.
"We worked hard enough the first two periods," said Skinner. "We just sort of came off of it for a little bit and they capitalized on some scoring chances we gave them."
Carolina is playing six of its next seven games on the road, where the Hurricanes were 18-17-6 last season.
Washington won five out of six meetings with the Hurricanes in 2010-11 and the Caps went 2-0-1 against Carolina at home. The Capitals have won six of nine overall in the series and have taken five out of seven in D.C.