Dark horse with a capital 'C'

Ross McKeon
Yahoo! Sports

Alexander Ovechkin is the single most exciting player in the National Hockey League.

No one is a greater threat with the puck on his stick. No one brings more outward and genuine passion to the game. And no superstar whose game is all about offensive enjoys the raw art of delivering a clean hard hit like Ovechkin, night-in and night-out.

Ovechkin alone is worth the price of admission. And you're better off watching him in person than anywhere else, because you're sure to miss something if you're not in the building.

It was no fluke last season that Ovechkin walked off with four major pieces of hardware, and he deserved them all, without question. Two of the trophies come attached to leading statistical categories – the Rocket Richard for Ovechkin's NHL-high 65 goals (13 more than his closest pursuer) and the Art Ross for his pace-setting 112 points. Ovechkin can take special pride in winning the Lester Pearson and Hart Trophies, MVP designations as voted upon by the league's players for the former and voted upon by members of the Pro Hockey Writers' Association for the latter.

The first pick in the 2004 draft had to wait a year to display his immense talents as the league lost the 2004-05 season due to a labor dispute, but he has been the poster boy for the new NHL since the league's return. Ovechkin has scored 163 goals and 310 points in 245 games. Just 23 years old, Ovechkin has people drawing comparisons to the greatest offensive players in the game and wondering how many records he could own by the end of his career.

Maybe the most impressive part of the story is how refreshing Ovechkin is in terms of his comfort with being a superstar, his ease in talking to everyone in English, and the fact he breaks all stereotypes of Russian players, who are usually more reserved and guarded early in their careers.

Ovechkin is the best thing that could have happened to the Washington Capitals, a franchise that was getting lost in the landscape of D.C. pro sports. But as exciting as Ovechkin has been during his short time in the league, the thing that really brought the fans back in the capital city was Washington's remarkable rally from worst in the league to a division title in the span of several months.

A career minor-league coach for most of 16 seasons, Bruce Boudreau took full advantage after replacing the fired Glen Hanlon last season. The Capitals responded to his style by going 37-17-7 to sneak past Carolina for the Southeast Division title. Boudreau was a runaway winner in the Jack Adams race, but he certainly would have traded the honor for a first-round win in the playoffs instead of falling in overtime of Game 7 at home.

What will define Ovechkin as a great player in the end is the success the Capitals have in the postseason, assuming he fulfills that whopping 13-year, $124-million extension signed in January.

To that end, Ovechkin is going to need support. For now, the Caps are a mix of young and old. For every Nicklas Backstrom there's a Sergei Fedorov. Drafting and developing will continue to be key as the Caps will want to roll with a young core, or at least one that's close in age to Ovechkin, to try to compete for the annual crack at the big prize.

Last season: 43-31-8, 94 points, first place Southeast Division, third place (sixth most points) Eastern Conference. Won 11 of their final 12 games, including the last seven, to nudge past Carolina and claim Washington's first division title since 2000-01. The Capitals' first trip to the postseason in four years came to a sudden and disappointing end when Philadelphia scored in just over six minutes into overtime of Game 7 to oust a Capitals team that scored first and had home ice for the opening-round decisive game.

Imports: G Jose Theodore (2007-08 team: Colorado Avalanche), C Keith Aucoin (Carolina Hurricanes), D Tyler Sloan (minors), RW Graham Mink (minors).

Exports: G Olaf Kolzig (Tampa Bay Lightning), D Steve Eminger (Philadelphia Flyers), G Cristobal Huet (Chicago Blackhawks), RW Ben Clymer (available free agent), LW Matt Cooke (Pittsburgh Penguins).

Three keys to the season: When the Capitals dealt for Cristobal Huet at the trade deadline, essentially letting 16-year veteran Olaf Kolzig know his time was up, it marked a significant change in the goaltending situation. But Washington had another idea in mind in the offseason when it pursued Jose Theodore. The one-time Hart Trophy and Vezina winner fell out of favor in Montreal and couldn't live up to a big contract he brought to Colorado until the second half of last season. It's a relatively short snapshot to simply say Theodore is back to his dominating self, especially since he wasn't nearly as good in the second-round playoff match-up against Detroit as he was against Minnesota in the opening round. Then again, none of the Avs distinguished themselves against the eventual Stanley Cup champs. Theodore is 32 and in a division that hasn't been big on defense the last couple of seasons. His athleticism should be a plus, and he may hold the ultimate key to how well the Capitals fare since the two 20-year-old European-born goaltending studs in the organization – Simeon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth – are still developing.

Second, Washington made very few changes in the offseason. Understandably, they were happy with the roster for a long stretch last season, and a lot of the heavy lifting was done by younger players in the franchise besides Ovechkin, including blossoming defenseman Mike Green, dynamic winger Alexander Semin, emerging two-way star Brooks Laich and Backstrom. The Capitals will be looking for continued development from those player in addition to others such as Tomas Fleischmann and Shaone Morrisonn. With Ovechkin fine with carrying the team on his back, these support players have to lighten his load as much as possible.

Third, the Caps were hit by injury last season and they need to be a healthier group this time around. Shoulder surgery limited Michael Nylander to half a season. Assuming the rumors of an impending trade are not true, Washington's attack could benefit from the soon-to-be 36-year-old. Chris Clark could play on the opposite wing of Ovechkin if he's recovered from an abductor injury that limited the 32-year-old to only 18 games last season. And post-concussion symptoms still dog 31-year-old defenseman Brian Pothier. The Caps would love to have his versatility back, but there's no guarantee.

On the hot seat: As crazy as it sounds, Ovechkin is the man who has no choice but to produce MVP-caliber numbers for the Capitals to excel. That's not to say he's going to be the subject of trade rumors or looked at in a bad light if he slips to 45-50 goals and 80-90 points. And certainly he's not expected to do everything on his own, but Washington doesn't have the depth, high-end defense or dominating goaltender unless proven otherwise. For now, it's Ovechkin against the world.

Poised to blossom: Green and Laich took a big jump each last year. Maybe it's Fleischmann's turn. The 24-year-old scored a modest 10 goals in 75 games, the first season of three in which he was considered a regular. Armed with a two-year deal, the Czech native could vie for time on a scoring line if he shows continued improvement. Otherwise, skating on a third line with Fedorov and possibly Laich, Fleischmann could emerge as a two-way threat and fill an important role.

Analysis and prediction: You want your dark-horse Stanley Cup champion? I submit the Washington Capitals. It's no stretch to imagine this team venturing deep into the Eastern Conference playoffs. You may get some resistance in other cities such as Montreal, Ottawa and New York, but is it really that much of a stretch to imagine the Penguins and Capitals having a heated rivalry over the next decade or so?

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