Is this the year the Capitals fly under the radar, then soar in the playoffs? The year they exceed expectations instead of falling short of them?
Has the bar that was set so high in previous years been lowered for the first time since the arrival of Alex Ovechkin?
That all depends on whom you ask.
“It’s been a long time waiting,” said Capitals defenseman Mike Green, who will begin his eighth NHL season tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning [7 p.m. CSN, 106.7 FM] at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. “I think we’ve had too good of a team not to win it in the last while. So now’s our time.”
Defenseman Karl Alzner, who is beginning his fifth season with the Caps, said this year’s goal should be no different than it’s been since he arrived in D.C.
“In my opinion, we legitimately think we can go all the way to the Finals and win,” he said. “I don’t ever come into a season thinking otherwise.
“I don’t know if other people have other expectations, but that’s what mine are and I hope everyone thinks the same.”
The Capitals’ biggest move in the offseason was acquiring veteran center Mike Ribeiro from the Dallas Stars in exchange for forward Cody Eakin and a draft pick. They also picked up some second-tier forward depth with Joey Crabb and Eric Fehr and defensive depth with Jack Hillen.
Outside of that -- and the departures of Mike Knuble, Jeff Halpern, Dennis Wideman and Tomas Vokoun – the Caps are pretty much the same team that went to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals last spring.
So what makes the Caps so confident they can get past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998?
A healthy Backstrom and Green. And new coach Adam Oates.
Backstrom [concussion] and Green [sports hernia surgery] missed a combined 90 games last season and the Caps’ power play, one of the league’s most feared in previous seasons, finished 18th in the NHL at 16.7 percent efficiency
The Caps also finished 14th in the NHL with 218 goals, well below the league-leading 313 goals they scored two years earlier. Dale Hunter’s switch to a passive defensive system that relied on shot blocking played a big factor in the dropoff.
Alex Ovechkin took much of the blame for the Caps’ struggles last season, finishing with a career-low 65 points. While he still managed 38 goals without the full-time assistance of Backstrom and Green, Ovechkin clearly was unhappy at the end of last season, saying Hunter asked him to be a pumber, ‘so I was a plumber.”
As much as players did not enjoy playing Hunter’s system Alzner said the fact they all bought in during the playoffs was a giant step forward for a team that many say lacked the commitment level to win in the playoffs.
“We were blocking shots and it’s not easy to get everyone to block shots,” Alzner said. “We all played Dale’s system whether or not guys thought it was best for their game, and that’s huge.”
Earlier this week, Oates said he took Ovechkin, 27, Green, 27, Backstrom, 25, and Brooks Laich, 29, into his office and let them know what he expected this season – not necessarily from them individually, but as a team.
“They are the core of this team,” he said. “They’ve been together for a long time They are a real good nucleus and 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.”
Green, who signed a three-year, $18.25 million extension over the summer, agrees.
“I’ve been in the league for a while now and want to be considered as a leader,” Green said “Ovi, myself , Nicky – guys that have been here together – need to step up. That’s the final question.”
Actually, the final question is whether the Stanley Cup remains a realistic goal for the Capitals.
"We have that question every year," Ovechkin said. "We have to be ready mentally on the ice out there. Every night."
The Capitals will start providing answers beginning tonight in Tampa.