This is uncharted territory for the Washington Capitals, as for the first time in five seasons, the they are entering a playoff series as an underdog.
After defeating Florida and the Rangers during the team's final two games of the regular season, the Caps earned the right to take on the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the opening round.
Despite the team's struggles with consistency throughout the season, the Caps are a much more dangerous team offensively than they were two weeks ago, as top center Nicklas Backstrom returned to action after missing 38 games due to a concussion.
The addition of Backstrom to the Caps' lineup cannot be understated, as the 24-year old Swede is by far the team's best playmaker. He is the only true number one center on the Caps' roster.
In his absence, the Caps relied on Backstrom's fellow Swede Marcus Johansson to fill the void, and though Johansson enjoyed brief spurts of increased offensive productivity, Backstrom is the team's unquestionable offensive catalyst. His return couldn't have come at a better time.
Heading into the postseason, Backstrom will be counted upon to assume a leading role offensively and, more importantly, to take some of the Bruins' focus off of Alex Ovechkin's line.
A year ago, Backstrom was panned for his play during the Caps' nine-game playoff run, as the smooth skating pivot tallied just two assists as Washington was swept by the Lightning in the semifinals.
However, this season, Backstrom rebounded by notching 42 points through the season's first 38 games before being blindsided with an elbow courtesy of Calgary's Rene Bourque.
Though he appeared to be a step behind in his first three games back from injury, Backstrom notched a goal and an assist in Washington's regular season finale at Madison Square Garden, looking more like the top-flight center he was 18 months ago.
If Backstrom can return to form, why can't Washington upset the second-seeded Bruins?
At the beginning of the season, many had the Capitals tabbed as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference, and though Washington struggled mightily for long stretches, the playoffs—as the Capitals know all too well—are a different animal entirely.
They are about gaining and sustaining momentum, and teams playing their best hockey at the right time.
Fortunately for the Capitals, outside of the franchise-record seven-game winning streak to start the season, they have yet to play their best hockey this year.
All season long, the Capitals have overcome adversity this season and managed to claw their way into the playoffs, and they'll be faced with more challenges in the immediate future with top goaltenders Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun on the shelf with injuries.
That being said, Braden Holtby is a good enough goalie that if the Capitals can play disciplined defensive hockey—and receive sufficient offensive contributions from Alexander Semin, Ovechkin and Backstrom—they'll at least put up a fight against Boston.
It won't be an easy series by any means, but the Capitals have more than enough skill to surprise the Bruins.
If they're able to complete that mission, what's to say that Washington couldn't go a step further and advance to the conference final for the first time in more than a decade?
This series against the Bruins presents the Caps with an opportunity to silence their critics by upsetting a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, and in doing so, announce their reemergence among the NHL's elite.
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