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The 2010-11 edition of the Washington Capitals entered the regular season on the heels of a 2009-10 campaign in which the team won had the best record in the National Hockey League. During the 2009-10 season the Capitals recorded a then-franchise record in wins, only to be eliminated in the first round of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, in one of the biggest upsets in recent memory. In this piece, NoVa Caps’ Diane Doyle looks back at the 2010-11 season, 10 years later.
State of the Team in Training Camp
With the Capitals number one goaltender Jose Theodore having departed in free agency, the team’s plan for the 2010-11 season was to hand the goaltending reins over to Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, both drafted in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. The plan was to have the two young netminders share the net and battle for the number one position. Both were 22 years of age at the time.
Varlamov gained experience in the starter’s role as the goaltender the Capitals used the most in the playoffs during the previous two seasons, while Neuvirth spent most of the previous two seasons with the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate.
Most of the key players on the team were still relatively young. Alex Ovechkin, now the Captain, was 25. Top center Nicklas Backstrom would turn 23 in November, forwards Alexander Semin and Tomas Fleischmann were 26, forward Eric Fehr was now 25, and Brooks Laich was 27.
On defense, Mike Green would turn 25 in October and Jeff Schultz would turn 25 in February, while John Carlson, who earned a full-time role the prior season, would turn 21 in January. Karl Alzner, another young defenseman, turned 23 in September.
The defense was perceived to be the relative weakness for the team, as none of their defensemen were considered to be “good” shutdown defenseman.
Among the forward prospects, there was hope that Marcus Johansson, the Capitals’ first-round pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, would eventually fill the role of second-line center, but the plan was for Johansson to serve as third-line center for the 2010-11 season. Another center prospect, the diminutive Mathieu Perreault, was also in the mix to possibly earn a role with the team.
The Capitals opened the 2010-11 season on the road against the Atlanta Thrashers on October 8, opting to start Neuvirth in a game they lost 4-2.
The following night was the Capitals’ home opener at Verizon Center (now Capital One Arena), with Head Coach Bruce Boudreau starting Semyon Varlamov in goal. They won the game 7-2, scoring six unanswered goals to win.
The team then won their next three games, which included tilts against the Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders at home, and a game against the Nashville Predators on the road. This four-game winning streak included two overtime games.
The Capitals then lost two games to Boston, one at home and one on the road, before returning to Washington to beat the Atlanta Thrashers 4-3, a game that featured a hat trick by Alexander Semin and a game-winning overtime goal by Tomas Fleischmann.
The Capitals played their last three games of October on the road, beating the Carolina Hurricanes 3-0, losing to the Minnesota Wild, and beating the Calgary Flames 7-2.
For the month of October, the Caps went a decent 7-4, and were in second place in the Southeast Division with 14 points, one point behind the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Capitals started the month of November very well, winning their first five games to cap-off a six-game winning streak. They also played a three-game homestand, in which they beat Toronto in a shootout, downed Boston in regulation, and Philadelphia in overtime.
Their victory against Boston may be best remembered as the game in which then-goaltending prospect Braden Holtby made his NHL debut in relief after Neuvirth gave up three goals. Holtby started the team’s next contest against Philadelphia, a 3-2 Overtime win. The winning streak ended on November 13 in Buffalo, when the Sabres beat the Capitals 3-2 in Overtime.
The Caps ended the month of November with a 7-2-2 record, pushing their overall record to 17-6-2 and giving them the best record in the entire NHL. They held a two-point lead over the Detroit Red Wings (then in the Western Conference), the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Philadelphia Flyers. Alexander Semin already had 18 goals for the season, including two hat tricks against Tampa Bay during the month of November.
The last day of the month also brought a trade. Forward Tomas Fleischmann was traded to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for defenseman Scott Hannan in a trade meant to add depth to the defensive corps and make room in a perceived heavy forward group.
December started off well for the Capitals, with a 4-1 win against the St. Louis Blues in St. Louis buoyed by Nicklas Backstrom scoring two, third period goals. The team then traveled to Dallas and lost to the Stars 2-1.
The loss to Dallas began a seven-game losing streak that included losing all four games of a four-game homestand. The streak came at a time when the HBO television network was filming their series “24/7: Road to the Winter Classic”. At the time the Capitals were losing, the Penguins were riding a 12-game winning streak.
The Caps lost their sixth game in a row when the New York Rangers clobbered them 7-0 on December 12, in a game in which Alex Ovechkin got in a fight with Brandon Dubinsky.
The Capitals lost two more games after that. Throughout the long losing streak, there was speculation that Head Coach Bruce Boudreau would be fired.
After the loss to the Rangers, Boudreau decided that he would have the team play a “trap” defense instead of their normal system, since things had deteriorated so much on defense.
The team finally won again on December 19 when they beat the Ottawa Senators 3-2. They continued to turn their fortunes around for the remainder of the month by winning five of their last six games, with the only loss coming to the Penguins at home in a 3-2 shootout on December 23, a game that was billed as a preview to the Winter Classic.
The Capitals finished with a 5-6-3 record for the month of December and an overall record of 22-12-5. They were tied for first place in the Southeast Division in points with 49, however, the Lightning had one game in hand.
The New Year started with the Winter Classic. Due to the weather, the game was postponed from the early afternoon to prime time, actually increasing the audience on NBC.
The Capitals fell behind early in the second period but scored three unanswered goals to win 3-1: Mike Knuble tied the game on a power play goal, while Eric Fehr scored the game winner and an insurance goal.
On the whole, January was not a spectacular month for the Capitals. They had no extended winning streaks but no long losing streaks like the previous month (they did have a three-game losing streak midway through the month).
The team also met the high-flying Philadelphia Flyers on January 18 and lost 3-2 in overtime. They ended the month on a sour note by losing 1-0 to the Atlanta Thrashers, their last game before the All-Star Game Break.
Washington’s record for January was 5-3-4, which pushed their overall record to 27-15-9, placing them second in the Southeast Division, fourth in the Eastern Conference behind Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, and Pittsburgh, and the eighth-best record in the NHL.
A very rough schedule loomed for the month of February as most of the Capitals’ upcoming opponents were among the strongest teams in the league. They opened the month by losing in a shootout to Montreal at home, then they beat Tampa Bay 5-2 on February 4 in a game that featured two goals by Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin’s 20th goal of the season.
On February 6 (Super Bowl Sunday), the Capitals shutout Pittsburgh 3-0, with goalie Michal Neuvirth making 22 saves.
After losing games at home to the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks, Washington began a long road trip that started with a loss to the then-Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes, 3-2.
They fared much better in Anaheim in a very wild, 7-6 game which featured a hat trick by Alexander Semin. They then traveled to Los Angeles and San Jose, where they failed to put a “W” on the board against either opponent. They finally broke their skid in Buffalo on February 20 by winning 2-1. The following day, they beat Pittsburgh 1-0 in CONSOL Energy Center on an Alex Ovechkin power play goal.
The Capitals finished with a 6-5-1 record for the month of February and 33-20-10 for the season. The month moved the Capitals into second in the Southeast Division and the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference and ninth-best record in the NHL.
The trade deadline at the end of the month brought a number of roster changes to the team. The Capitals traded center David Steckel and a second-round draft pick to the New Jersey Devils for veteran center Jason Arnott. They also traded prospect Jake Hauswirth and a third-round pick to the Florida Panthers in exchange for defenseman Dennis Wideman.
The Capitals started the month of March the same way they ended February: by beating the New York Islanders, this time by a score of 2-1 in overtime.
March proved to be a great month, as they won their first eight games, extending their winning streak to nine games. This streak included four games that went past regulation.
The new acquisitions of Arnott and Wideman appeared to have energized the team, as they then beat the St. Louis Blues at home on March 3, and then traveled to Florida, beating the Panthers 3-2 and the Lightning by a score of 2-1. They returned home for a three-game homestand on March 9, and beat the Edmonton Oilers, the Carolina Hurricanes, and Chicago Blackhawks.
Their March 13 game against the Blackhawks seemed like déjà vu in many ways as they had beat the Blackhawks in overtime in a nationally-televised game a year earlier. In this game, the Caps beat the Blackhawks 4-3 in overtime, thanks to a Mike Knuble goal.
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The team then went on the road for a six-game road trip, winning four. The road trip was kicked off by a victory over the Montreal Canadiens 4-2, for their ninth win in a row.
The winning streak ended in Detroit, where the Red Wings defeated the Capitals 3-2. However, they won three of the four remaining games on the road trip, only losing to the Ottawa Senators (March 25).
The Capitals returned home and split their last two games of March, losing to the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in a shootout and beating the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-3 in overtime.
Their record in the month of March stood at 12-2-1, which pushed their season record to 45-22-11 for 101 points. They ended the month third overall in the NHL and second in the Eastern Conference, just one point behind the Philadelphia Flyers.
April – End of the Regular Season
The Capitals played four games in April to conclude the 2010-11 regular season. They beat the Buffalo Sabres 5-4 in overtime, with Ovechkin scoring his 30th goal of the year as the game winner.
This game was followed by a 3-2 shootout win against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and a 5-2 win against the Florida Panthers at home. They ended the regular season with a 1-0 loss to the Florida Panthers, making their record for April, 3-1.
For the season, the Caps were 48-23-11 for 105 points, the best record in the Southeast Division and in the Eastern Conference. Only the Vancouver Canucks, who won the Presidents’ Trophy, had a better regular season record. The Capitals would enjoy home ice advantage for the first three rounds of the playoffs, provided they could advance that far.
Regular Season Summary
For the season, the Capitals had three forwards who topped 20 goals: Alex Ovechkin scored 32 (a down season for him), Alexander Semin scored 28, and Mike Knuble scored 24. Nicklas Backstrom had 18 goals and was second on the team in overall points with 65.
The team had to deal with injuries throughout the 2010-11 season. Goalies Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth both missed time throughout the season with injuries,
Mike Knuble missed time due to a broken jaw. Jeff Schultz broke his thumb and missed time in December and January. Mike Green missed time due to a shoulder issue, a knee injury, an inner ear issue, and concussions.
Dennis Wideman, acquired in a trade at the deadline, injured his leg in March and would miss the remainder of the season and the playoffs due to developing compartment syndrome.
Nicklas Backstrom broke his thumb in February. (he tried playing through it but eventually missed time in March). Alexander Semin had various groin and hip injuries during December and January. Eric Fehr injured his shoulder in February and missed three weeks. Both Ovechkin and Jason Arnott missed a road trip in March to deal with health issues.
Round 1 – Washington Capitals vs New York Rangers
The Caps met the eighth-seeded New York Rangers in the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Michal Neuvirth would start in net for the Caps while Henrik Lundqvist would start for the Rangers.
Game 1 took place on April 13 at Verizon Center. The game was scoreless after two periods but defenseman Matt Gilroy scored for the Rangers early in the third period. Ovechkin scored the game-tying goal between the 13 and 14-minute mark. The game proceeded to overtime, where Alexander Semin scored the game-winning goal near the end of the period to win 2-1.
Game 2, which took place on April 15 at Verizon Center saw the Capitals win 2-0 with second period goals scored by Jason Chimera and Jason Arnott. Chimera scored early in the period, while Arnott scored two minutes later on a power play goal.
The series proceeded to New York where on April 17, the Rangers beat the Capitals in a 3-2 heartbreaker, with Brandon Dubinsky scoring late in the third period to break a 2-2 tie.
The fourth game (on April 20), was also in New York. After a scoreless first period, the Rangers erupted for three goals during the second period, putting the Caps in a 3-0 hole. It looked as though the series would be tied, as the teams returned to Verizon Center.
During the third period, the Caps roared back with a goal by Semin and two goals by Marcus Johansson to tie the game at 3-3 as the game proceeded to overtime. Neither team scored during the first overtime, but just over twelve minutes into the second 20-minute frame, Chimera scored as the Caps won 4-3 and now had a commanding 3-1 series lead.
This game prompted an opening video for the next game at Verizon Center inspired by the horror movie series, with a character named Jason titled “Jason – Nightmare in New York.”
The series returned to Verizon Center for Game 5 on April 23. In this game, the Caps received goals from Mike Green, Alex Ovechkin, and Alexander Semin to build a 3-0 lead. They gave up a late Rangers goal to lose a shutout, but ultimately won 3-1.
The Caps won Round 1 of the playoffs and were set to meet the winner of the Pittsburgh Penguins-Tampa Bay Lightning series.
Round 2 vs Tampa Bay Lightning
The Capitals would play the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had beaten the Pittsburgh Penguins in a seven-game series, in the second round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The series started at home for the Capitals on April 29, a game they lost 4-2. Two days later. on May 1, they lost the second game 3-2 in overtime, thanks to Tampa Bay’s Vincent Lecavalier.
The team then traveled to Tampa Bay. On May 3, they lost Game 3 by a 4-3 score and lost Game 4 by a 5-3 score, ending their season in a disastrous four-game sweep.
Neuvirth, who had been so brilliant in their first round series against the Rangers, did not do nearly as well against Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay went on to the Eastern Conference Finals and lost a seven-game series to the Boston Bruins, the eventual Stanley Cup champions.
The Capitals advanced further in the postseason in 2011 than they had during their Presidents’ Trophy-winning season of 2009-10. However, getting swept by Tampa Bay was a major embarrassment to a team that had already not been living up to postseason expectations prior to that season. The plan was to emphasize “accountability” much more for the following season.
The team had the best record in the Eastern Conference and had advanced further in the playoffs than the previous season. The 2010-11 regular season also marked their third-best regular season in franchise history up to that point, trailing only the 1985-86 and 2009-10 seasons. They had even won the first round in decisive fashion, but their embarrassing second round sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning caused much consternation among the fans and management on whether serious changes needed to take place for the team, whether coaching, core players, or strategy.
By Diane Doyle
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