NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 18: (L-R) Marcus Johansson #90, Alex Ovechkin #8 and Mike Knuble #22 of the Washington Capitals celebrate Knubles second goal of the game at 11:24 of the third period against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on March 18, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey. The Capitals defeated the Devils 3-0. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
"I think that [Knuble]'s the most well-respected guy in the room. I feel like our team rallies around him. He works just as hard as anyone..." - John Carlson, 12/23/10
With an average age of just under 27-years-old, the Caps are one of the League's youngest teams - a fact underlined by the baby-faced goaltending tandem (or trio) and top defensive pair upon whom they rely night after night (to say nothing of their twenty-five-year-old captain).
But while the youthful talent for which the Caps have become known continues to impress, it's been the players at the other end of the age spectrum who have stepped up their game over the last quarter of the season - most notably Mike Knuble and trade deadline acquisition Jason Arnott. While their off-ice leadership has been well-documented, it's what they're doing on the ice that's standing out of late.
When the season started it appeared that Knuble, thirty-eight, had lost a step or two from last season; his point production was down, his ice time dwindled and he seemed to lack the finish around the net that had made him a key part of the 2009-10 team. As the season comes to a close, however, he is without question the hottest player on the team. His fourteen points and eight goals since the trade deadline both lead the entire team over that span, and his twentieth goal of the season on March 23 against the Flyers marked the eighth straight year he's hit that plateau - a milestone which was somewhat in doubt just a month ago.
Just two years younger than Knuble, Jason Arnott's acquisition at the trade deadline was largely seen as a way to steady the second line and provide additional leadership (and Cup-winning experience) to a team that may need an extra boost to get to the next level. And while he's done that - and taken a few of the younger players under his wing - the offensive spark he's provided has been an unexpected bonus. Arnott has points in seven of the ten games he's played with Washington, and has become the definition of clutch, with five of his seven points coming on either game-tying or game-winning tallies (including a goal and an assist in the final minute of regulation that twice forced overtime).
In short, the two oldest players on the team have also become among the most valuable members of this team at just the right time. The Caps have just three games remaining in the regular season, are within sight of first place in the conference and are two weeks away from the playoffs. Getting the most out of their younger players will be crucial to their postseason success, but getting more out of their veteran leaders will be almost as important - and both are trending in the right direction.