Frontrunner makes key Capital gains

Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin (C) celebrates his power play goal with teammate Mike Green as...

Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin (C) celebrates his power play goal with teammate Mike Green as Tampa Bay Lightning's Brett Clark leaves the penalty box during the second period of Game 3 of their NHL Eastern Conference semi-final hockey game in Tampa, Florida May 3, 2011. (REUTERS/Mike Carlson)

RANDY SPORTAK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:32 PM ET

The Washington Capitals are in danger of becoming the San Jose Sharks of the NHL's Eastern Conference.

Year after year, they're a sexy choice to win the Stanley Cup. Yet, year after year, they disappoint in the crunch.

It's easy to see why they are a legitimate contender.

The Capitals have the superstar at forward -- maybe the most dynamic player in the league with Alex Ovechkin.

They have scoring depth with the likes of Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Brooks Laich up front, and John Carlson and Mike Green on defence.

They have the knowledge, experience and motivation, which can only come from the bitter disappointment of falling short of winning a championship.

This is the year all those pieces, including better goal-tending with the addition of Tomas Vokoun, come together.

In theory, this shouldn't be the perfect match.

We're talking about a team which has won four straight Southeast Division titles -- including the Presidents Trophy a couple of years ago -- but has been punted in the opening round twice in that time and failed to make it to the Eastern Conference final the other two springs.

Last season ended with a shocking sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

As for Vokoun, his playoff history is even more mild.

He guided the Nashville Predators to playoff spots twice (2004 and 2007) only to lose out in the first round.

The past four seasons were spent in Florida with a Panthers team which would need a map, compass and sherpa guides to find the playoffs. (OK, that may not be fair since the Panthers, who last made the playoffs in 2000, missed by a tiebreaker in 2009)

Vokoun has plenty of reason to be fired up this season.

First will be to show he's still an elite goalie after four years playing for a team which is an afterthought throughout the league.

Secondly, it's to get back at all those who didn't come calling when free-agent seas on opened, making him eventually sign with the Capitals for US$1.5 million for one season, a far cry from what he expected on the market.

He's not the lone player from the U.S. Capitol to have a chip on his shoulder this year.

Ovechkin is coming off a shockingly low (for him) 32-goal, 85-point season, while Backstrom fell to 18 goals and 65 points. Semin -- who had former teammates openly criticize him for a lack of passion -- mustered just 54 points and Green collected 24 points in an injury-filled year.

Having those four out for revenge alone will make the Capitals better.

Now, consider the additions. Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward give the Capitals something they desperately needed -- scoring depth.

Jeff Halpern will solidify their fourth line and provide leadership, which was lacking, and Roman Hamrlik's presence will make Karl Alzner and John Carlson that much better, if Hamrlik's time in Calgary alongside Dion Phaneuf is any indication.

The Capitals will still be driven by Ovechkin, who

already has 301 NHL goals in his first six seasons, but he has a better, and inspired, supporting cast.

That's why the Capitals will be hoisting the Cup.

Unless, of course, it's the Sharks who beat them to it and hand over the tag of being the NHL's biggest collection of under-achievers.

randy.sportak@sunmedia.ca

On Twitter: @SUNRandySportak

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