Capitals

Elfin: D.C.’s Hot Young Core No More

by David Elfin
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Credit: Len Redkoles/Getty Images

Credit: Len Redkoles/Getty Images

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The Caps were supposed to be playing their preseason home opener tonight against the Boston Bruins, the team they stunned in first round of last spring’s NHL playoffs.

However, there won’t be a puck dropped at Verizon Center tonight. In fact, there might not be hockey before New Year’s Day, and quite possibly no NHL season at all in 2012-13 as the 10-day lockout of the players by the owners drags on with the end no closer in sight than the turnaround of the American economy despite ongoing talks.

Caps captain Alex Ovechkin has returned to his native Russia to play for Dynamo Moscow. Goalie Michael Neuvirth has gone home to the Czech Republic. Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson could be heading to Sweden soon while fellow forward Wotjek Wolski, an offseason acquisition, might also be bound for Europe.

Meanwhile, goalie Braden Holtby, the surprise hero of the Caps’ late-season surge, has gone down to Hershey of the AHL to gain more pro experience along with such 20-something teammates as defenseman Dmitry Orlov.
Troy Brouwer has stayed put in Chicago where he played before being traded to Washington in the summer of 2011. Fellow winger Jason Chimera and center Mike Ribiero are remaining in the area because their kids are enrolled in school, but that’s hardly the same as them skating for the Caps.

A couple of years back, the Caps were the best local franchise. They had won four straight Southeast Division titles. Ovechkin was the area’s No. 1 athlete. Beating the Bruins and taking the New York Rangers to seven games this spring certainly didn’t dampen interest in the Caps.

However, the Nats, who have rocketed from sub-.500 team to the cusp of winning the National League East, have indisputably become Washington’s hot team. The Redskins, long the kings of local hearts, have become even more of a passion with the addition of mega-talented, ever-smiling quarterback Robert Griffin III. And as long as the NHL lockout continues, the Wizards, led by young guards John Wall and Bradley Beal, will be the prime team at Verizon Center.

Of course, the Caps are in much better shape than they were before the 2004-05 lockout in preparation for which owner Ted Leonsis commanded general manager George McPhee to clean house of such high-priced veterans as Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar and Robert Lang as Washington prepared to rebuild around No. 1 overall draft choice Ovechkin.

The lockout delayed that project for a full season and it took the Caps until the end of their young superstar’s third year to return to the playoffs. But Washington hasn’t missed postseason since, a streak that only Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and San Jose can match.

This time around, the Caps’ core — Ovechkin, Backstrom, forward Brooks Laich and defenseman Mike Green – has played together for so long and the roster is so similar to the playoff lineup – with Ribeiro replacing mercurial scorer Alexander Semin among the top forwards – that Washington could hit the ice skating hard no matter when the impasse finally ends. And only four Washington regulars – Ribeiro, gritty forwards Jason Chimera and Joel Ward and physical defenseman John Erskine – are in their 30s so time is on Washington’s side, too.

However, there will definitely be a lost opportunity for new coach Adam Oates and his staff as they miss out day after day on the chance to blend the offensive-minded style of Bruce Boudreau, who turned the Caps into winners, and the defensive-oriented approach of successor Dale Hunter which worked so well in the 2012 postseason.

Who knows? Maybe 2012-13 could finally be the season that the Caps are destined to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup after so many springs of playoff heartache. That is if there’s any season at all.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin

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