The Washington Capitals managed to get through their season opener in front of the home crowd despite some less-than-thrilling moments, but they face much tougher tasks this week than the Carolina Hurricanes.
And if head coach Bruce Boudreau cannot navigate the Capitals through the week, starting Monday night with the team that swept them out of the playoffs last spring, a lot of eyes are going to start watching for trouble.
Boudreau already raised some eyebrows before the first game of the NHL season when he elected to start sophomore Michal Neuvirth for the opener last Saturday. It was not Boudreau's decision to go with the youngster Neuvirth over the veteran Tomas Vokoun that caused a stir – after all, Neuvirth held the No. 1 job as a rookie last season – but the way he did it.
After Vokoun, 35, was signed as a free agent in July, Boudreau informed everyone he would be the No. 1 goaltender to ease the burden on Neuvirth, 23, and the coach maintained that position through last week. But then Vokoun let it slip he was not getting the start in the season opener, the traditional perk for the No. 1 goaltender, but would instead face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Caps' second game on Monday. He also made it known he was not happy.
Considering there have long been questions about the Capitals' team chemistry, it was not an ideal way for Boudreau to start the season. But he is not the only member of the team under scrutiny.
After four consecutive years of playoff exits in the first or second round, the Capitals' core of young stars, led by Alexander Ovechkin, Mike Green, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom, need to match their regular-season success in the playoffs. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and general manager George McPhee showed their loyalty in the summer by keeping the group together after they were easily dismissed from the playoffs by the Lightning but another playoff disaster could spark a lot of changes.
"Things can go fast in this league," McPhee told the Washington Post. "If you look at Semin, Green, Backstrom, [Ovechkin] they're five, six, seven years into their career.
"Their careers could be half over, and I think they've started to realize this isn't going to last forever. They don't want to leave anything on the table, because the opportunity is there."
Green scored in overtime against the Hurricanes to prevent the Capitals' season from starting on a sour note but they now need to beat two strong opponents this week, the Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins, to keep the doubters at bay.