If you’re the type of person who hates surprises, be it surprise parties, surprise proposals or surprise quizzes, then this post isn’t for you.
In a season full of roller coaster-like highs and lows, the Washington Capitals produced quite a few surprises throughout the 2011-12 season. Some good, some atrocious and others were surprising because, well, what was supposed to happen actually did when it appeared it wouldn’t.
So enough with the vague descriptions of surprises in the Caps season, here’s the Top Six surprises from 2011-12.
6. Dennis Wideman’s Second Half Tailspin
Let’s start off on the wrong foot, shall we?
Last season, the Capitals acquired Dennis Wideman from the Florida Panthers to bring a little extra firepower to their blue line. Then a blood bruise knocked Wideman out of the postseason, but optimism ran high among the Caps faithful because his seven points in 14 games showed promise.
It carried over into the 2011-12 season where Wideman scored nine goals – tops amongst Caps defenders – and went on to be voted to his first-ever All-Star Game.
And that’s where the surprise begins. Wideman scored just two goals in games after the All-Star Break and then went on to be the Capitals’ worst defender in the postseason.
Let’s do this again, just to get the point across clearly. An All-Star selection scored only two goals in the second half of the season after the Break and became a third line defender in the postseason.
5. Dmitry Orlov
Speaking of defenders, let’s talk a bit about the defender few expected to make an impact this season – Dmitry Orlov.
At training camp, it was obvious Orlov could play in the NHL from the start for perhaps another team, say the Columbus Blue Jackets, but the Caps had just signed Roman Hamrlik over the summer and with Wideman healthy there was little room for a rookie to make any sort of leap to the NHL.
A season in the AHL with the Hershey Bears certainly never hurt anyone, but his stay in Chocolate Town was short-lived.
On Nov. 21, Orlov made his debut as the struggling Caps were looking for anything to spark their line-up and in 11:56 of ice time, Orlov made enough of an impact to stay with the Capitals.
Unlike other call-ups from the Bears, Orlov’s stay didn’t end after three games. He stayed until April 7 and became a regular fixture in the Caps’ lineup. Orlov recorded only three goals and 19 assists, but was the third highest scoring defender behind John Carlson.
It leaves one to wonder if had the Caps known Orlov could play at the NHL level in his first year, if they would have signed Hamrlik over the summer.
In the end we’ll never really know how much of an impact the rookie really could have made as Coach Dale Hunter benched him for the entirety of the playoffs, opting for…surprise…Wideman.
4. Dale Hunter Ditches the Caps
So you’ve read the title and I know what you might be thinking. “Gee, Dale only signed a one year deal. Everybody knew he might leave. That’s not a surprise!”
Let’s do a surprise check list for this moment.
You woke up and heard the news via Twitter, Facebook or a sports network not named ESPN (since they probably had WNBA highlights or something instead of hockey news).
Did you take a step back in astonishment that after going to Game 7 in the second round Hunter was bailing out? Did you shove your palm in to your face and exclaim, “Oh no, what are you doing!?” Was there any sort of knee jerk or hand slamming motion made? Did you rush to a social media platform to declare your anger? Was the sky momentarily falling?
If you said yes to any of those, you were likely surprised by this move.
Let’s face it, during the postseason fans became accustomed to the thought of Hunter coaching the Caps for seasons to come. It never crossed their minds he would leave until Game 7 against the Rangers reminded us he had a one year deal.
Even when news broke he had a one year deal shortly after being hired, the thinking was never, “Well, if the Caps are good, he could still leave!” It was more along the lines of, “The team still sucks, so if we miss the playoffs, do we even want him back?”
The answer is yes, fans absolutely wanted him back — especially after clinching a playoff berth and developing a true defensive hockey team.
The only people not surprised by this move were the journalists; partly because they were elated they won’t need to ask the Associated Press to make a stylebook entry for “battling” and “hockey play” in the 2013 edition.
Let’s face it. You were surprised. The reasons behind it may have made sense afterwards, but let’s not fake it. We were all surprised for a few moments there.
3. Jay Beagle
Here’s a hockey story you’re going to love.
A grinder goes undrafted in the NHL draft, winds up signing a deal with Washington in 2008 and then in 2012 cracks into the NHL, plays in 41 games and develops into a fan favorite for his work ethic and warrior play style.
That’s the Jay Beagle story for you, and every second of it was earned by No. 83. Beagle didn’t contribute much on the scoreboard.
His four goals and one assist make him the lowest scoring forward on the Caps of forwards who mattered (sorry Joel Rechlicz and DJ King, a combined four games played makes you irrelevant), yet who didn’t want Beagle on the ice at the end of the season?
Beagle’s contributions came on defense, the penalty kill and the face-off circle. In the playoffs he became a defensive anchor and when he went down with an injury in Game 5, fans quivered a bit that he wouldn’t be on the ice for Games 6 and 7.
The sad truth is that there are other Beagles out there waiting for their chance. A few bad games here and there and he could be in the press box for extended periods of time next season or completely replaced.
Such is the life of a fourth liner, but in 2011-12 Beagle turned himself into an every night player at the most important time of the year – the playoff chase. Not a bad way to improve upon a 31 game season in 2010-11 that didn’t necessarily suggest he’d turn into a key defensive player.
2. Braden Holtby
Yes, this is a major surprise.
Holtby stood toe-to-toe with the defending Stanley Cup champion goalie Tim Thomas, and then dueled to Game 7 with New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
Logic would have us believe that with just 21 games of NHL experience, Holtby never should have turned in the=- 1.95 GAA and .935 save percentage he earned in 14 postseason games.
Holtby should have caved in under the pressure with his limited experience, but he didn’t.
Instead, he became the team’s most experienced playoff goalie by reaching 14 games where Michal Neuvirth has seen only nine playoff games and veteran Tomas Voukoun – he of 680 games played – has been in just 11 playoff games.
Holtby wasn’t supposed to be this good.
In 2010-11 he played an unbelievable stretch of hockey where he won 10 games before giving the net back to Neuvirth and that stretch alone could have been his best streak of his career, ever.
Yet he outdid that stretch this postseason and has a legitimate reason to claim he’s the team’s No. 1 goalie for the 2012-13 season.
1. The Caps Bought In
We’re down to the final surprise of our list, and we’ll keep this short since it’s gotten a tad bit long, but who wasn’t surprised to see the Capitals actually buy into a defensive style?
Just a quick refresher, under Bruce Boudreau the Caps supposedly were gung-ho about defense. They outclassed the Rangers in the playoffs, but were swept by a team that actually bought into a defensive system, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
So fast forward to this year. Fans expected more defense and more attention to that part of the game. When Boudreau’s plan failed and saw him dismissed by General Manager George McPhee, Dale Hunter was brought in to bring a true grit style of play.
Around March, it showed up.
Seemingly overnight the Caps became expert shot blockers, they won one goal games and the penalty kill became one of the strongest points of the team. Those characteristics carried into the playoffs and though it’s debatable that Hunter, who ended his tenure in Washington with a .500 record, was employing “coin flip hockey”, it got the results the Caps wanted – winning with defense.
Ever since a seven game series loss to the Montreal Canadiens in 2010, the Capitals had been searching for the defensive performance that could take the team to the next level.
The surprise is that it was always within them, they just needed to embrace the ideals behind the style of play – something they didn’t do until their season depended on it.