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Capital enter off-season in contention limbo

The Sports Xchange
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The Capitals entered the regular season as a Stanley Cup favorite, entered the playoffs as a disappointing dark horse and enter the off-season somewhere in between.

In what will be remembered as a roller coaster ride with wild swings of emotion, the Capitals' 2011-12 season ended with the team falling one win short of the Eastern Conference Finals.

It also ended with them finding a new No. 1 goalie in Braden Holtby and losing a head coach in Dale Hunter.

Two days after the Capitals were eliminated by the New York Rangers in the seventh and deciding game of the Eastern Conference Semifinals Hunter announced he would return to his home in London, Ontario, where he has co-owned and operated the OHL London Knights for the past 12 years.

Hunter convinced his players to play a more defensive-minded game but in the process he seemed to alienate star players Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. The two Russians have been teammates since Ovechkin entered the NHL in 2005, but there were post-season reports indicating that Semin will test unrestricted free agency on July 1.

Before Capitals general manager George McPhee can decide which players to keep this summer he'll need to decide which kind of coach he'd like to hire. The Capitals made great strides transitioning from a team known for its high-powered offense to one willing and able to shut down its opponents with strong defense.

"This team could have won a Stanley Cup this year," McPhee said. "It was a very solid team. It played great hockey. The interesting thing about our league now is in some ways it's harder to win a Cup. In some ways it's easier. It might be easier because there are really no dynasties any more so you're not going to run into a team that you just can't beat. But there are more teams that can win."

Ironically, the team's emphasis on team defense leaves them short on offensively skilled players willing to play two-way hockey. If Semin signs elsewhere they'll have $6.7 million in salary space to sign a 30-goal scorer.

Just how far the Capitals grew this season can only be determined by the way they buy into whatever their new coach is going to sell them. But the fact they bought into Hunter's system this season bodes well for the next coach, provided he finds common ground with Ovechkin.

SEASON HIGHLIGHT
The Capitals got into the playoffs in their next-to-last game under the strangest of circumstances. Facing the Panthers at home on April 5, starting goaltender Michal Neuvirth suffered a leg injury and joined No. 1 goalie Tomas Vokoun (groin) on the injured list.

That forced rookie Braden Holtby between the pipes and the 22-year-old netminder held on for a 4-2 victory that clinched a berth in the playoffs.

The highlight of the playoffs came in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals when Joel Ward scored 2:57 into overtime to give the Capitals a thrilling 2-1 series-clinching win. Ward joined head coach Dale Hunter as the only players in Capitals history to score a Game 7 goal in overtime.

TURNING POINT
The Capitals may have lost their second-round series to the New York Rangers in Game 7 in New York but every player will point to blowing a one-goal lead in the final seconds of Game 5 as the series-shifter.

With the Capitals trying to close out the game and Henrik Lundqvist pulled for an extra attacker Joel Ward took a double minor for high sticking and sat in the penalty box as Brad Richards tied the score with 6.6 seconds remaining in overtime and Marc Staal won it just 95 seconds into overtime.

The Caps recovered to win Game 6 at home, but fell short in Game 7 when they played arguably their worst game of the series.

Copyright (C) 2012 The Sports Xchange. All Rights Reserved.

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