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An Opening Night Look at the Caps

Washington is all set to start off the abbreviated 2012-13 NHL season. The opening night roster is set, and here’s a look at how the Caps lineup and how it looks hours before the puck drop for the season opener against the Lightning.

Caps goaltenders Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth spent the NHL’s lockout playing hockey, Holtby with AHL Hershey and Neuvirth with Sparta Praha in his native Czech Republic. As the Caps head into the 2012-13 NHL season, rust should not be a factor with the Washington goaltenders.

“I think it’s definitely to all our advantage,” says Holtby, “the guys who played in the AHL or kept playing in other leagues. But at the same time, games have to be played. That advantage goes out the window once the puck drops. You have to perform.”

While playing 48 games in 99 days isn’t as daunting as it sounds, there is one stretch that includes 17 games in 30 days, so both goaltenders should see their fair share of work this season. But heading into the season and Saturday night’s opener in Tampa Bay, Holtby has to be seen as the favorite to get the starting assignment against the Lightning.

Although he played in just four regular season games for Washington in 2011-12, Holtby ended up playing every minute of all 14 Stanley Cup playoff games for the Capitals, and he was superb. Holtby posted a 1.95 GAA and a .935 save pct. in 14 postseason contests.

Holtby’s 12-12-1 record for Hershey this season isn’t an eye opener, but his 2.14 GAA and his .932 save pct. are. The 23-year-old has earned an opening night NHL roster spot for the first time in his NHL career.

Neuvirth is certainly no slouch, either. He won 27 games for the Caps in 2010-11, leading the team past the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs as well. Last season, the Caps were all set to enter the postseason with Neuvirth as their go-to guy in goal. But the 24-year-old suffered a lower body injury in the team’s penultimate game of the season against Florida, and that’s when the team turned to Holtby.

The stalwart tandem of Karl Alzner and John Carlson spearheads what is a deep group of defensemen. The duo was nurtured along together in Hershey a few seasons back and they’ve entrenched themselves as the team’s top pair.

Alzner is smooth and efficient. He manages to get the job done without fanfare and he has averaged over 20 minutes a night each of the last two seasons. Alzner moved from ninth to first on the team in shorthanded ice time per game (2:44) last season.

Carlson jumps into the play and will man the point on the team’s second power-play unit. His offensive production dropped slightly last season, but his ice time did as well. The Caps’ defensive system in the season’s second half of ’11-12 also didn’t help Carlson’s numbers. Once the league gets back to playing an 82-game slate, Carlson could settle in above the 40-point plateau for years to come.

Mike Green and Roman Hamrlik comprise the second pair. A spate of injuries has limited Green to fewer than half (81 of 164) of the team’s regular season games over the last two campaigns. If he is fully healthy and able to assume the 25 minutes he routinely skated every night in 2008-09 and ’09-10, his offensive production should rebound as well.

The 38-year-old Hamrlik is the current leader in games played among all active defensemen in the NHL. He started his career with the Lightning 20 years ago as an 18-year-old on an expansion team, and if not for three lockouts that have carved into his career, he might currently rank among the top 15 NHL players all-time in terms of games played.

The return of veteran defenseman Tom Poti likely slides him up to fifth on Washington’s defensive depth chart. Poti missed all of last season and most of 2010-11 with what was originally believed to be a groin injury. Once the ailment was correctly pegged as a fractured pelvic bone, Poti was able to make strides in treatment and rehab of the injury. If he is able to return to his previous steady and consistent form, it will be a shot in the arm to the Washington blueline.

Three more defensemen – John Erskine, Jeff Schultz and Jack Hillen – round out the defense. Erskine is the longest tenured Washington defenseman; he first donned a Caps sweater at the start of the 2006-07 season. The most hard-nosed of the Washington defense corps, Erskine provides brawn and snarl to a greater degree than any of the other seven defenders.

Schultz had his finest season in the league in 2009-10 when he was partnered with Green. Schultz set a single-season individual franchise mark with a plus-50 that season. Last season’s minus-2 was his first negative plus-minus in six seasons in the league. He is likely to split third-pair time with Poti, Hillen and Erskine this season.

Hillen was an offseason free agent signing from Nashville, where he served as the Predators’ sixth/seventh defenseman last season. A good skater, Hillen is likely to occupy a similar role in D.C. in 2012-13.

Nicklas Backstrom will man the middle of the team’s top line, skating along with Alex Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson. The righty-shooting Ovechkin will move from the left to the right and Johansson – a natural center – will play left wing. Both Ovechkin and Johansson have plenty of recent experience at their “new” positions, so the adjustment shouldn’t be that difficult.

Ideally, Johansson’s speed will mesh with Ovechkin’s bull-in-a-china-shop mentality and Backstrom’s superb playmaking ability to give the Caps a consistently dominant threat. The hope is also that a healthy Backstrom combined with Adam Oates offensively infused system will help return both Backstrom and Ovechkin to the range of better than a point per game.

Johansson has had two solid seasons in the league, but more consistency will be expected from him in this, his third season in the NHL.

“That’s exactly what I’m looking for,” says Oates of Johansson. “Right now he’s penciled in with Nick and Ovi. That’s a huge responsibility, but it’s also a compliment to him and a great opportunity. You’re playing with two elite players in this league and we expect you to be a part of that. And you’re going to get power play time, we want you to go to the next level.”

At season’s outset, Mike Ribeiro centers a second line with Wojtek Wolski on the left and Troy Brouwer on the right. Once Brooks Laich returns from a lower body injury that he suffered while playing in Switzerland, he will likely occupy Wolski’s spot on the left.

Ribeiro combines with Backstrom to give the team its best one-two punch up the middle in years. He also gives the Caps more depth on their power play, and area that has struggled over the last two seasons.

“I think Mike will be great for us,” says Laich. “He’ll take some of the pressure off Nicky, and he’ll give us depth scoring. I think we’ll have two really good power play units. We’ve never had a quarterback really on a second unit. He ran the fist unit in Dallas; he’s capable of doing that, too.

“He gives us a different look. He controls the puck. He’s not a real physical guy; a lot of his game is played up here [points to head]. He’s very, very intelligent. I’m really looking forward to playing with him, I think I can learn a lot from him. I think if we end up on the same line I think we could really complement each other. Off the ice, he’s been great, he’s been awesome. I think he’ll fit in perfectly.”

Wolski signed a one-year deal as a free agent last summer and he’ll be looking to have a bounceback season. He has been plagued by injuries over the last few seasons, but is still just 26 and only three campaigns removed from his career year, a 23-goal, 65-point effort for the Avs and Coyotes in 2009-10.

Brouwer can play on any of the top three lines. In addition to being one of the most physically punishing Washington forwards, Brouwer has averaged 19 goals a season over the last three campaigns.

Jay Beagle mans the middle of the third line, centering for Jason Chimera and Joel Ward. Oates believes Beagle has some offensive upside, and he could get a chance to deliver on that potential in 2012-13. Oates doesn’t subscribe to the idea of having a checking line, and Beagle was largely deployed as a checking center under Dale Hunter last season. With the speedy Chimera – a 20-goal scorer last season – and the brawny Ward on his wings, Beagle might be able to deliver double-digit goal totals over a full 82-game season.

Ward will also be looking for a bounceback season. He scored six goals last season, the fewest of his four full seasons in the league. But Ward’s ice time was down in 2011-12, and he received virtually no power play time. He is expected to draw some second-unit power play time this season; 11 of his 46 career goals have been scored on the power play.

Four forwards will share fourth-line minutes at season’s outset: Matt Hendricks, Mathieu Perreault, Joey Crabb and Eric Fehr. Hendricks’s role is as a physical, energy player who is also capable of helping out on the penalty kill. Perreault helped fill in on the top two lines while Backstrom was sidelined with a concussion last season. Perreault is capable of contributing offensively; but he’ll need to find a way to carve out more meaningful minutes.

Crabb scored a career-best 11 goals for the Leafs last season and Fehr is a former 21-goal scorer who is returning to Washington after a season in Winnipeg. Fehr played well in Finland during the lockout and says he is healthier than he has been in five years. He could move up the depth chart a bit if he can find a way to get hot.

Ovechkin is in his third full season as the team’s captain. He be aided by alternate captains Backstrom, Green and Laich.

“I met with them the other day and they are the core of this team,” says Oates. “They’ve been together for a long time. [It’s] a real good nucleus, obviously, and [they’re] talented guys. It’s their job to be the pros of this team and let their habits rub off on the other guys. It’s their team.”