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Washington Capitals could be this year's sleeper team in the East

The Canadian Press
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The Hockey News
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Washington Capitals could be this year's sleeper team in the East

The Canadian Press
By:

"I think so," says Caps goaltender Olaf Kolzig. "Why not?" After three years of rebuilding and three years near the bottom of the standings, the Caps believe they've got a team on the rise.

"We think we should be knocking on the playoff door, that we'd like to be battling to get in that seventh or eighth spot," Caps GM George McPhee said Thursday.

The additions of top centre Michael Nylander, defenceman Tom Poti and forward Viktor Kozlov via free agency plus the arrival of highly touted rookie forward Nicklas Backstrom bolsters a Caps team with a young and emerging core led by Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Steve Eminger.

"To see them go out and get those players, we were ecstatic," Kolzig told The Canadian Press this week. "The guys on the team couldn't wait to get to camp right then and there in July.

"To a man, everybody I've talked to, we're just so excited for the season to start."

They open camp Sept. 13 with a feeling they just haven't had in a long time.

"It was obviously difficult going to camp the last few years knowing that we were just going with young players," said McPhee. "That first year out of the lockout we were just trying to fill boots. Last year we had more of our younger guys in the lineup. But you have to have to some experienced players to help out and to make a difference. We really needed to acquire a few players in key positions.

"We absolutely had to have a centre (Nylander) that could make a play. We had to have another defenceman (Poti) who could move the puck. And we had to have another player (Kozlov) to play with Ovechkin. So we thought we got good pieces. The players are more optimistic because we did go out and do that this summer when we couldn't in the past."

The Caps need to start winning. In a market where hockey is never close to the first option, the recent losing has taken its toll, the Caps ranking 27th among the 30 NHL clubs last year with a 13,931 average home attendance. This is a huge year to turn things around in their market.

"Let's face it, not to say it negatively, but Washington is a bandwagon city when it comes to hockey," said Kolzig. "If we win, they come out. That's basically the bottom line. And this is a crucial year for that. We have to start winning consistently and put the organization back in the playoffs. Winning brings out fans."

McPhee feels the fan base has been patient and understood the plan three years ago, to get younger and rebuild.

"But I think they want to start to see some results now," said McPhee. "And hey, we all do."

The Caps actually began last season with a 15-10-7 record before going 13-30-7 the rest of the way.

"Up until Christmas time we were in a playoff spot," said Kolzig. "Then we ran into some injury problems and the flu bug came through the team. We just didn't have the depth in the organization to recover from it."

Now there's some depth. The top two lines will score goals but it's not clear yet how they will line up. A lot of it depends on how the 19-year-old Backstrom fits in. Will he play centre or wing? And on which of the four lines?

"We know we have a very smart player, a very responsible player, someone who can make a play, someone who is good on faceoffs and really sharp defensively," said McPhee. "But you just don't know if they're ready to handle that centre-ice position."

McPhee points out that rookies Jordan Staal of the Penguins and Phil Kessl of the Bruins, both natural centres, played the wing most of last season.

"We'll just have to see where Backstrom fits," he said.

Kolzig is thrilled to be reunited with Nylander, who was a Cap in 2002-03 and briefly in 2003-04. Nylander was second in New York Rangers scoring with 83 points (26-57) in 79 games last season.

"I've always thought so highly of Nyls," said Kolzig. "I think he's one of the more underrated players in the league."

Poti brings a lot to the table as well, Kolzig says.

"Poti is going to stabilize our back end and help our power play out tremendously because our special teams the last few years has really been our Achilles heel," said Kolzig.

For Kolzig, the positive buzz surrounding his team is validation of his decision two years ago to sign a two-year extension (he's signed through this season) rather than jump ship. It's the only NHL team he's ever played for and while it would have perhaps been easier to join a contender, he believed in McPhee's vision.

"Hopefully at the end of the day, I do get my name on that Cup and it would make the ultimate storyline," said Kolzig. "But if we fall short, I'm going to have no regrets because it was my decision and something that I believed in."

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Washington Capitals could be this year's sleeper team in the East