The Washington Capitals are in dire need of a hero at the moment. When Sheriff Shanahan rounded up the last Young Gun who was on the loose by slapping Alexander Ovechkin with a 3-game suspension, the Capitals suddenly went from a star-filled, talent-laden roster to one without a rudder. Alexander Ovechkin is the team's captain and emotional leader, not to mention the best goal scorer. He was the driving force behind the Capitals getting a point out of Sunday's loss to Pittsburgh, posting two assists and the go-ahead goal in the third period. He used to be the most fun player to watch in the league, but lately he looks like he is being dragged down by the "C" on his chest and the public persona change that happened when he signed with IMG. He has been a shadow of himself for over a year. Even so, he has set up or scored 5 of the team's 8 goals over the past 5 games, he anchors the powerplay, and he is the most dangerous player on the ice. Without him for three games in seasons past, the Capitals would buckle down and find ways to win. Now, a 3-game absence for the 100 million-dollar man on the heels of his first 3-point performance of the season means the Caps aren't likely to make much of an impact on the score-sheet.
The 2011-12 season started out with so much promise for the Capitals. The team had a lot of new, veteran faces and they were loaded for bear to march all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. For the first 7 games, nothing could go wrong. Even when the team looked out of sync and disjointed, they found ways to win. That's the mark of a great team, the ability to win games even when you're not at your best. Not coincidentally, those 7 wins, plus one more on November 11, are the only games the four core players this team has been built around have played together this season. Since then, the Capitals have been a patchwork quilt of overpriced veterans, minor-league call-ups, and spare parts. The entire team got put through the wringer when Bruce Boudreau was fired as head coach. New coach Dale Hunter is an excellent replacement, but the team still needs to adapt to his coaching style and establish the identity he wants to stamp on them. Hunter is getting the most he can out of this line-up, but the spokes on the wheel can only do so much without the hub.
Hunter has the ball rolling in the right direction, but until he gets Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, and Nicklas Backstrom in the line-up at the same time, hopefully in the playoffs, we won't get a true sense of how good this team really is. General Manager George McPhee hates overpaying for anything, but he will pay to keep these four players together as long as he thinks they can win together. Money can only take the team so far, though, if the players aren't in the lineup. As Capitals' owner Ted Leonsis said in his rebuttal to Ovechkin's suspension, one-third of the team's payroll is tied up in Green ($5.25M), Ovechkin ($9.5M), and Backstrom ($6.7M). In real money terms, the 20 players who suited up for opening night counted $59.6 million against the salary cap. The 20 players expected to suit up for the Caps tonight combine for $39.3 million, just under 66% of the opening night roster. Considering the salary cap floor is $48 million, don't expect too much from the Caps tonight as they face the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins.