On Thanksgiving, the Washington Capitals were in last place in the NHL. They had hit rock bottom. Fast forward to today, March 24th, 2008. The Capitals are two points out of the eigth spot, four out of seventh, and remarkably only five behind the Carolina Hurricanes for first in the Southeast division.
However, while in ninth place, the teams behind them are equally packed. Toronto, in 12th, is only two points behind Washington.
To get to the playoffs, either the Bruins or Hurricanes need to crumble. The Hurricanes show no signs of weakness as of late. Even with their injuries that would drive any other team out of it, the Canes showed their grit by keeping their feet on the pedals.
The Bruins, however, are slumping. It's more likely the Caps will catch up to Boston, all while holding off Buffalo, Florida, and Toronto. That in mind, how can the Caps do it?
Well, there are six games remaining. First, three on the road against Carolina, Tampa, and Florida. Then they come home to play those same teams on the choppy Verizon Center ice.
To get in, the Capitals likely need to win at least three of the four games against Carolina and Florida. They also need at least one of the games against Tampa. The ideal record of 6-0 likely sneaks them in as division champs. Anything less than that and they're looking at the eighth seed.
4-1-1 is probably the worst they could go on this stretch and still make the playoffs, and they can't afford to lose to the Panthers at all.
To do this, the team needs to keep working hard, getting the gritty wins. Alex Ovechkin has put the team on his back for most of the season, tying the team record with 60 goals. His next goal snaps Dennis Maruk's record, achieved in 1982. That team did not make the playoffs. But Dennis Maruk was a scorer, and didn't play two way hockey. He did help lead the team to the playoffs the following year.
Ovechkin's performance to 60 (And he won't stop there—look for him to top 65 before the season's over) has been nothing short of an MVP performance. But for him to reach the playoffs, he can't do it alone.
The Caps, with free agency this year and now the trade deadline, have put some real talent around Ovechkin. Sergei Fedorov is the teams new veteran playoff-tested battle-ready leader. Christobal Huet has been nothing but dynamic in goal for a team struggling to break away from the degrading face of its franchise (read, sadly, Olie Kolzig). Matt Cooke is the pesky guy who could be to this team what Dale Hunter used to be.
Lately, Brooks Laich, whom the Caps acquired for Peter Bondra has been absolutely stoic. He will finish with more than 20 goals, and his ability to go to the net (and deliver great quotes) is serving him and the team well.
Tom Poti has been solid on the defensive end, but with a nagging shoulder, hasn't been the offensive powerhouse he was signed to be. Nicklas Backstrom, after the setback against Pittsburgh, has been on fire, and Viktor Kozlov has turned his season completely around. And the list goes on.
Bruce Boudreau has been paramount to this team's success. Next year, with a full year to deliver, it's likely that the former Slapshot extra could lead this team to a 100+ point campaign.
The team is no longer just Ovechkin and friends.
If the Capitals do sneak into the playoffs, the team matches up best according to season records with Ottawa. They simply obliterated the Sens, going 4-0-0 in the season set. However, Ottawa is slumping, and they won't be in the first seed.
The two top runners in the Conference are Montreal and New Jersey, and the Caps would rather play Montreal. They've played very well in Canada, and they have the karma of the Habs former starting goalie. If the Caps can contain Koivu and Kovalev, the loss of Komisarek would be too much to ask for.
On the other hand, the Caps could sneak and grab the third seed. If that happens, one has to believe that they'd be staring at the Ottawa Senators—with home ice advantage.
The new NHL breeds parity, they say. Well, the Caps will need to be more than above average to sneak into the playoffs.
With Ovechkin, Fedorov, Backstrom, and Huet, don't be surprised to see them do it.