With the NHL lockout finally over, the Washington Capitals and the rest of the NHL are slated to hit the ice in the next few weeks for an abbreviated 2013 season.
There will be little room for error during what's likely to be a 48-game schedule starting on Jan. 19. For the Capitals, who came one game away from the Eastern Conference Finals last season, there are many questions to be answered. Here are five things to look out for this season.
1) Is Braden Holtby ready to shoulder the load?
As a precocious 22-year-old, Holtby burst onto the NHL's radar late last season and into the playoffs, helping Washington to a dramatic 7-game upset of the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. He now enters the shortened 2013 season as the presumptive starter after spending the lockout playing for the AHL's Hershey Bears. Holtby showed a tremendous amount of promise and poise between the pipes for the Capitals in the playoffs, but it will be seen whether or not he's ready to be the team's regular starter.
2) Can Alexander Ovechkin return to his old self?
Under Dale Hunter's tight-checking defensive system, the high-flying captain found himself not only offensively stifled, but on many occasions, on the bench in key situations. Ovechkin's goal totals have tailed off dramatically since scoring 65 in 2007-28, but he rebounded from a career-low 32 two seasons ago to scoring 38 last year. In a shortened season, the Capitals will likely need his goal-scoring and playmaking punch early and often.
3) The Adam Oates show begins
The man who once took the ice at Verizon Center is now behind the bench, as Adam Oates begins his first stint as an NHL head coach. Oates' pedigree as a special-teams mastermind was likely one of the alluring factors in bringing him to D.C. from New Jersey and Tampa Bay previously. As pointed out by the blog Russian Machine Never Breaks, Oates was instrumental in upgrading the power play and penalty kill for both the Devils and Lightning, categories where the Capitals ranked 18th and 21st respectively in 2011-12.
4) The hyper-competitive Southeast returns
For the first time since 2006-07, the Capitals did not finish atop the Southeast Division last year, edged out by one point by the upstart Florida Panthers. The Panthers look to be competitive once again this season, and the other three teams are chomping at the bit for success as well. The Tampa Bay Lightning still boast the dangerous Steven Stamkos, the Carolina Hurricanes added Jordan Staal and former Capitals forward Alexander Semin and youthful Winnipeg was in the playoff hunt deep into the season's second half. The Capitals remain talented and strong, but the competition around them continues to improve.
5) How will teams respond to the compressed schedule?
The 2013 National Hockey League season will compress 48 games into just four months before the playoffs begin in late April, meaning that time off will be at a premium and teams will have to adjust to basically playing every other night. Common sense dictates that young, stamina-laden teams that stay healthy will see the most success, especially since every game will count that much more toward playoff positioning. Teams will not be able to afford a four or five-game swoon as they could in a full 82-game season.