NHL 2011-12 Preview: Capitals Hoping Tomas Vokoun Can Finally Lead Washington Deep into Postseason

NHL 2011-12 Preview: Capitals Hoping Tomas Vokoun Can Finally Lead Washington Deep into Postseason For the fourth straight season, the Capitals won the Southeast Division last year. And for the fourth straight season, Washington couldn't carry that regular-season success into the playoffs. The East's top seed was swept aside by Tampa Bay in the second round, which was actually one round further than the Caps got the previous year after winning the Presidents' Trophy. Washington hasn't won more than one playoff series since reaching the Cup Final all the way back in 1998, and frustrations are mounting considering the talent assembled in the nation's capital.

2010-11 Record: 48-23-11, 107 points (1st Southeast Division; 1st Eastern Conference; beat NY Rangers 4-1 in first round of playoffs, lost to Tampa Bay 4-0 in second round)

Bruins record vs. Capitals: The Bruins hold a 72-37-21-5 edge in the all-time series after going 3-1-0 against the Capitals last year. That included a sweep of a home-and-home series in October that featured a Gordie Howe hat trick by Milan Lucic.

When to watch: Unlike last year, when the Bruins faced the Capitals twice in the preseason, then three times in their first 10 regular-season games and finished the season series on Dec. 18, Boston won't see Washington this season until a trip to D.C. on Tuesday, Jan. 24. The Bruins also play at Washington on Sunday, Feb. 5, while hosting the Capitals on Saturday, March 10 and Thursday, March 29.

Familiar faces: Defenseman Dennis Wideman is now in Washington after joining his third team in less than a year at the trade deadline. Mike Knuble was a mainstay on the Bruins' top line with Joe Thornton and Glen Murray before the lockout, and remains productive with Washington. Matt Hendricks spent the 2007-08 season in Providence before being dealt to Colorado for Johnny Boychuk, while goalie Dany Sabourin played in Providence in 2009-10. Waltham native Keith Aucoin is also a former Providence Bruin, while Chris Bourque (Boxford), son of Bruins great Ray Bourque, has returned to the Capitals system after a year in Europe and John Carlson (Natick) and Tom Poti (Worcester, Boston University) give the Washington blue line some local flavor.

Key additions: G Tomas Vokoun (free agent); F Troy Brouwer (trade with Chicago); F Jeff Halpern (free agent); D Roman Hamrlik (free agent); F Christian Hanson (free agent); D Danny Richmond (free agent); F Danick Paquette (trade with Winnipeg); Joel Ward (free agent)

Key losses: D Scott Hannan (signed with Calgary); D Tyler Sloan (bought out, signed with Nashville); F Jason Arnott (signed with St. Louis); F Eric Fehr (traded to Winnipeg); F Marco Sturm (signed with Vancouver); F Matt Bradley (signed with Florida); F Boyd Gordon (signed with Phoenix); F Andrew Gordon (signed with Anaheim); G Sergei Varlamov (traded to Colorado)

Burning question: Can the Capitals win in the postseason as constructed?

Despite another disappointing playoff showing, the Capitals didn't make wholesale changes this offseason. They retained coach Bruce Boudreau and didn't part with any of their core stars. They did, however, address two areas of concern that the Capitals hope will help produce better results next spring. First, they upgraded their goaltending by bringing in veteran Tomas Vokoun. He signed for short money (one year at $1.5 million) in the hopes of having a chance to win himself, though it's no sure thing that Vokoun will be a difference maker in the postseason. He's played in just 11 NHL playoff games with a 3-8 record, and his last postseason action came back in 2007. The other area Washington tried to upgrade was it depth and grit up front, two qualities that are crucial come playoff time. They traded for Troy Brouwer, who won a Cup with Chicago in 2010, and signed Jeff Halpern and Joel Ward.

2011-12 outlook: A grittier supporting cast should help, but the Capitals' fortunes will still come down largely to how far their stars can carry them. Alex Ovechkin dipped from 50-59-109 in 2009-10 to just 32-53-85 last year, but at least he produced in the playoffs with 5-5-10 totals. Nicklas Backstrom dropped from 33-68-101 to 18-47-65 and then was just 0-2-2 in the postseason. Alexander Semin saw his production slip from 40-44-84 to 28-26-54, then was criticized by former teammate Matt Bradley, who said Semin "just doesn't care" about his game. Washington needs a better commitment from its entire lineup if it ever wants to shed its underachiever label in the playoffs and challenge for the Cup.

Did you know? Part of the reason for the decline in the statistics of the Capitals' top scorers last year came from a change in philosophy by Boudreau. He attempted to get his club to focus more on defensive discipline and less on the free-wheeling style that had helped them post such gaudy numbers in the regular season. The results were dramatic, as Washington went from first in the league with 313 goals in 2009-10 to just 19th with 219 in 2010-11. They finished with 14 fewer points, but still earned the top seed in the East because they also went from 16th in goals against (2.71 a game) to fourth (2.33).

With the bulk of the offseason moves complete and the start of another NHL season inching closer, NESN.com Bruins beat writer Douglas Flynn will be previewing one team from each conference every day through August 26.

Friday, August 19: Tampa Bay Lightning and Los Angeles Kings

 

Sunday, August 21: Winnipeg Jets and San Jose Sharks

 

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