- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 9, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

The Washington Capitals always win their home opener, don’t they? Saturday night’s victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, 4-3 in overtime, makes it 10 straight for them. So you don’t want to draw too many conclusions, make too many sweeping statements, off 60 (or so) minutes at the rink — not when, as Bruce Boudreau reminded everybody, there are still “81 more to go.”

Indeed, if you were looking for anything from the Capitals in this first game, you were looking for reasons to look ahead instead of back, to talk about this season instead of last season … and the season before that … and the season before that. You want to feel, if you’re a Caps fan, that the future is going to be different from the past, that the club has made the necessary changes — personnel changes, attitude changes — to fix whatever has been broken, whatever has prevented this talented team from going deeper into the playoffs.

From that standpoint, the evening was a mixed bag of successes and uh-ohs. On the plus side, the power play, unplugged much of last year, produced the last two Washington goals (Brooks Laich late in regulation and Mike Green in OT). Also, newcomer Joel Ward meshed nicely with Laich and Jason Chimera on the third line, which produced a goal (Chimera’s, on a breakaway set up by Ward) and forced the action throughout.

Those are two obvious points of emphasis for the Capitals this season — get their mojo back when they have the man advantage and get better scoring out of their secondary players (as Tampa Bay did when it swept the Caps last spring). So, yeah, seeing the puck go in the net twice on the power play was encouraging, even if the first time was on a five-on-three and the second on a four-on-three.

The same goes for efforts of the Messrs. Chimera, Laich and Ward. You expect Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and their linemates to pile up points, but if other folks start contributing on a regular basis, the offense might regain the fearsomeness it had — before, that is, last season’s 94-goal scoring drop.

As much as anything, Green said, it was just “important [for the Capitals] to get off to a good start. We didn’t want to have to go back to the drawing board [Sunday] and dwell on every mistake we made. We wanted to be positive about what we did and move forward.”

Still, there were some missteps that should give the Caps pause. They surrendered two leads in the third period, allowing Eric Staal to score his second goal of the night on the power play and leaving Jussi Jokinen free to knock home the equalizer with 1:19 to go — barely two minutes after Laich had put the home team ahead. Breakdowns like that were what George McPhee was hoping to avoid when he brought in 37-year-old Roman Hamrlik in the offseason (and experienced Dennis Wideman at the trading deadline last year) to shore up the blue line.

Semin, meanwhile, took a senseless boarding penalty at the end of regulation that left the Capitals shorthanded at the start of overtime — and would have cost them the game if Michal Neuvirth hadn’t made a couple of brilliant stops. Where have we seen that before?

Then there was the little drama that played out beforehand: Boudreau’s decision to start Neuvy in goal instead of Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun and his agent didn’t take the news well, and the Verizon Center crowd was deprived of a glimpse at the netminder who, it’s hoped, will make all the difference for the Caps. Strange, indeed.

Vokoun will be between the pipes Monday, the coach says, when the Lightning come to town. But on a night when fans were anxious to turn the page on the 2010-11 season, they ended up having to watch the kid goalie, the one who had a .867 save percentage in the second round of playoffs last year.

I asked Boudreau if there were times the Capitals, after all the roster moves they’ve made, seemed like a different team in the opener. “I always feel like every year is different,” he said. “I’m not sure if it’s the presence of those [new] guys or the things you’ve been working on or the different mindsets [players might have].

“It’s always a different feeling in close games. You’re always thinking: Here we go again. I’m confident we can win it, but it’s nail-biting time.”

The whole season figures to be “nail-biting time” for the Caps and their coach, both of whom have much unfinished business. After one night of nibbling, they’re 1-0. Only 81 more to go.