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Capitals season preview

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Sports,NHL,Capitals,Brian McNally

Three storylines

1 Adam Oates takes over » All new coaches face a challenge at the NHL level. But the new Capitals coach has three years of experience as an assistant in the league and now takes over a team that still harbors Stanley Cup hopes. As an added degree of difficulty, Oates had limited time to get to know his players and install his system -- seven practices over six days this week before the Caps start the regular season Saturday night in Tampa Bay. That isn't enough time. But can Oates keep his club competitive long enough before the players adjust to him later in the season? There are only 48 games.

2 Goalie battle » Braden Holtby looked like the franchise's netminder of the future last spring during the Stanley Cup playoffs when he led Washington to a series win over Boston and to a Game 7 against the New York Rangers. But he has all of 21 games of NHL experience in the regular season, so the sample size isn't huge. Plus, Michal Neuvirth is ready to reclaim the No. 1 spot he held two years ago. Both players will get their chances, according to Oates, thanks to the compressed schedule. Both men also say Neuvirth's critical comments about Holtby in the Czech media this fall are not an issue.

3 Back together again » One overlooked reason the Caps struggled to even make the playoffs last season was injuries to star center Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman Mike Green. That's a whole lot of offense watching from the press box. After a preseason scare following a fall on the ice in Russia last month, Backstrom says he's fine. Green, too, thinks last year's groin injury is behind him. The two men combined to miss 90 games. A healthy season for both is critical in 2013. And if they regain their form -- Backstrom was dominant the first half of last season -- Washington's power play could be lethal.

Big questions

Can new coach Adam Oates get the best out of star winger Alex Ovechkin? » It's maybe the question that affects the Caps' fortunes more than another. Ovechkin struggled most of last season until catching fire late to finish with 38 goals. Ovechkin will have the reins loosened some after the Dale Hunter experiment last season -- but he still can't simply revert to his old freelancing ways. Oates' aggressive style should keep Ovechkin happy, though.

Can Tom Poti successfully return? » Poti is a fascinating story after being a key piece of this team in years past. A fractured pelvis and severe groin injury kept him off the ice for two years. His comeback attempt is admirable. He concluded a two-game conditioning stint with Hershey of the American Hockey League on Thursday and rejoined the Caps. If he can stick on the final roster and regain his old form, Washington's blueline acquires some quality depth. If not, it may spell the end of Poti's career.

When will Brooks Laich be ready? » The versatile forward can be plugged into any part of this lineup -- but only if he's healthy. He skated Thursday but not with his teammates, and it's hard to imagine he will start the season Saturday. Laich is believed to be suffering from a groin injury. He was hurt while playing overseas in Switzerland during the lockout. His absence leaves a lot of minutes all over the ice that others will have to fill until he returns.

Where will the secondary scoring come from? » Alexander Semin may have scored just 21 goals last season. But the winger at least had the potential to net 30 or 40 before bolting for Carolina as a free agent. It's hard to see that ceiling with this group. Winger Marcus Johansson, 22, gets first crack at top-line duty. But can Wojtek Wolski, signed for cheap and a former 20-goal scorer himself, regain that old touch? Playing with an established center like Mike Ribeiro will help.

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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