By Adam Vingan
The Washington Capitals’ 2011 began and ended in similar fashion. On January 1, the Caps defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 in front of a sellout crowd of approximately 68,000 fans at Heinz Field. On December 31, the Caps’ comeback came complete in a 4-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets in front of a sellout crowd – albeit one almost four times smaller than the Winter Classic – at Nationwide Arena.
Those two victories bookended a year for Washington that can best be described as tumultuous.
The 2011 portion of the 2010-11 season saw the Caps ultimately earn a second straight No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference after a 26-11-6 record – including a nine-game winning streak – pushed them to the top. The second meeting with the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in three years ended with unprecedented quickness; the Caps played in their first playoff series under Bruce Boudreau that did not last seven games in a five-game rout.
Yet, those four postseason victories ended up being the only ones as the Tampa Bay Lightning struck four times in a row, leaving the Caps shocked as they were swept out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
During the longer-than-expected summer that followed, the Caps saw several players come and go. Some had been fixtures (Matt Bradley, Eric Fehr, Boyd Gordon, Semyon Varlamov), while others came and went within months (Jason Arnott, Marco Sturm). Five players (Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern, Joel Ward, Roman Hamrlik and Tomas Vokoun) arrived in Washington to replace them, bringing some much-needed grit and experience.
Meanwhile, those players that remained and will continue to remain fixtures finished seasons they’d surely like to forget. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom had career-worst seasons, while Alexander Semin had his lowest output in three years. Elsewhere, Mike Knuble started 2011 on the first line and ended it on the third (though he spent most of the last two months on the fourth).
Recently, Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin have regained their respective scoring touches; Ovechkin has five goals in his last four games and nine points in six games, while Backstrom leads the team in scoring entering 2012 and Semin has five points in his last three games. Things are starting to look up for the “Young Guns.” Well, except for Mike Green, who played a total of 33 games in 2011.
In between, however, much was made about the two Alexes during the offseason. According to Bradley, Semin just didn’t care. Before and during a “surprise announcement,” Ovechkin had to fend off rumors of his physical demise and remind everyone that he simply was not fat.
Speaking of fat, Ovechkin did some of the talking himself when he apparently combined that word with something less flattering and sent it in Boudreau’s direction after the latter benched the former in the final minutes of a one-goal game November 1. Ovechkin was not the only Cap who felt Boudreau’s newfound sense of accountability; Boudreau benched and scratched Semin, scratched Ward for missing a team meeting and put the entire team through a grueling, bag skate-filled practice.
Despite his best efforts, Boudreau could not get through to his team. After a 5-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres November 26, Boudreau admitted that if “I have to teach them how to be tough, then I don’t know quite how to do that.” Two days later, Washington found someone who could, hiring former captain Dale Hunter at Boudreau’s expense.
Hunter, he of the banner with his No. 32 hanging from the Verizon Center rafters and the one suit hanging in his closet, did not reverse the Caps’ misfortunes right away; in the first 15 games under Hunter, the Caps earned a 8-6-1 record. Yet, flashes of a turnaround are seemingly on the horizon.
Last year may have started and finished with wins, but there is a deeper thread that links the two. Entering 2011, the Caps overcame an eight-game losing streak, won four out of five to end 2010 and started the new year promisingly with a victory in the Winter Classic. Exiting 2011, the Caps overcame a skid of 10 losses in 15 games by winning four out of six and three straight for the first time since a season-opening seven-game winning streak, sealing it with a comeback victory on the final evening of the year.
Despite the ebbs and flows of 2011 and the calamity in between, the calendar turned toward 2012 in Washington with the same feeling as it did one year ago: one of renewed hope with a tinge of cautious optimism.