4 Reasons to Believe the Washington Capitals Will Make a Playoff Run

Dave UngarCorrespondent IIIMarch 10, 2013

4 Reasons to Believe the Washington Capitals Will Make a Playoff Run

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    The Washington Capitals' 7-1 thrashing of the Florida Panthers in D.C. Thursday night served as a not-so-subtle reminder that when the Caps are on, they can play with any team in the NHL.

    This win, combined with the Caps' tremendous come-from-behind win last Tuesday night against the Boston Bruins, it is easy to see that Washington is gearing up for a playoff run.

    After an absolutely putrid 2-8-1 start to the season, the Caps have been red hot as of late. They are 8-4-0 over the past 12 games and are within five points of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They also sit eight points back of the Carolina Hurricanes for the Southeast Division lead—taking the Canes being a daunting task, but not impossible.

    Statistically, the Caps have improved dramatically over the past few weeks. Roughly a month ago, the Caps were averaging 2.33 goals per game, which ranked 26th in the NHL.

    They are now averaging 2.96 goals per game which has them ranked 10th in the NHL.

    A month ago, the Caps were yielding 3.67 goals per game, and they were ranked 27th in this department. They are now giving up 2.96 goals per game and are ranked 22nd.

    A month ago, the Caps were the second-most penalized team in the NHL. They are now the ninth-least penalized team in the league.

    Across the board and on many levels, the Washington Capitals have reverted to the solid team so many of us have come to know and love over the years. They are playing much better hockey, and their recent successful run has Caps fans believing that maybe the playoffs are not just a pipe dream this season.

    Yes, the 5-2 loss to the New York Islanders on Saturday was a disappointing turn of events. It makes the game against the New York Rangers on Sunday even more important.

    But do the Caps have it in them to overcome their terrible start and make a serious push for the playoffs?

    Here are four reasons to believe the Washington Capitals will make a playoff run.

1. The Schedule Provides Opportunities to Make a Run

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    A big reason the Washington Capitals will make a playoff run is that the schedule will allow them to do so.

    If one looks at the current standings and compares that to the Caps' remaining schedule, it will become clear that the Caps have numerous opportunities to catch and perhaps pass many of the teams currently ahead of them.

    In fact, of the Caps' remaining 25 games, 15 of those games are against teams that are presently ahead of Washington by anywhere from one to 10 points.

    The Caps have one game left against the Philadelphia Flyers, two games remaining against the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators and two games left against the New York Islanders and Winnipeg Jets.

    Perhaps most importantly, however, is that the Caps have four games remaining against the current division-leading Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes currently lead the Caps by eight points, but the teams play each other four more times before now and the end of the season, including a big home-and-home series on Tuesday and Thursday of this coming week.

    Obviously, if the Caps could somehow win all four of those games, then they put themselves in a great position to not just make the playoffs but win the Southeast Division.

    It will not be easy for this team to make the postseason, and their poor start may ultimately be their undoing.

    But the way the schedule has worked itself out, the Caps will have plenty of chances to play themselves back into playoff contention.

    If it works out, then the Caps will have earned their playoff berth.

    If it does not work out, the Caps will have only themselves to blame.

2. They Are Playing with Heart and Confidence

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    Earlier this season, the Caps seemed to be going through the motions a lot. There was a definite lack of intensity in their game, and the team could not seem to muster the heart and courage necessary to compete on an elite level.

    There were far too many moments where players were standing around or not giving that extra effort. Players like Nicklas Backstrom seemed almost disinterested at times. Alexander Ovechkin was seemingly skating at half speed on occasion.

    If things did not go right, the Caps did not seem to have the intestinal fortitude to fight back. Much of the heart and grit and determination we saw during the 2012 NHL playoffs had seemingly vanished.

    After the Caps were clobbered by the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-2 on Feb. 7, the Caps' shortcomings as to many of these issues were noted by several key players. Many of these thoughts were summarized in an article by ESPN's Scott Burnside.

    Troy Brouwer felt that Caps were not mentally prepared to play.

    Ovechkin took it a step further, agreeing with Brouwer and adding that the Caps played with no emotion.

    Indeed.

    During the second period of that game against the Penguins, the Caps simply did not have the heart and will to fight back—and the Penguins buried them.

    How could a team not have the will and desire to fight to the bitter end against their biggest rival?

    But that was then.

    Since that time, the Caps have had two big comeback wins that showed how much heart and fight this team really does have.

    The first time was on Feb. 12 when the Caps rallied from a late two-goal deficit to beat the Florida Panthers 6-5 in an overtime thriller.

    But it was the game last Tuesday night at the Verizon Center that many of us might look back on as a turning point in the season. In that game, the Caps rallied from a 3-0 first-period deficit to defeat the Boston Bruins 4-3 in overtime.

    In the win over Boston, the Caps showed an extraordinary amount of heart and courage. They very easily could have just folded, much as they did two games earlier when they were thumped by the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1.

    But they fought back, caught and eventually beat the B's. Eric Fehr's overtime winner was unreal and the kind of goal that can really galvanize a team trying to make a playoff run.

    Two nights later, the Caps—overflowing with confidence—came out and destroyed the Panthers 7-1. The team is playing with heart, pride, determination and confidence.

    That is an excellent combination of factors that could very well lead to a playoff run.

3. The Caps Power Play Is Lethal

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    Another big reason to believe the Caps will make a playoff run is because of how effective their power play has been pretty much all season.

    One of the main reasons Adam Oates was hired as coach of the Capitals was so that he could get the team's power play back to where it was during their record-setting season of 2009-10. The Caps power play led the NHL with a 25.2 percent efficiency rating that year.

    The following season, though, the Caps power play slipped to 16th in the league while operating at 17.5 percent efficiency. Last season, the decline continued as the Caps ranked 18th in the NHL, their power play operating at a 16.7 percent efficiency rate.

    When Oates was hired, there was the feeling that he could revitalize the power play that had been so uninspiring the past couple of seasons. There were good reasons to believe this, as well as hard data in support of it.

    When Oates took the reins of the New Jersey Devils power play, New Jersey's power play was a mess. It ranked 28th in the NHL in power-play percentage, clicking on just 14.4 percent of their opportunities.

    By the end of last season, the Devils power play was ranked 14th in the NHL with a 17.2 percent success rate. In no time at all, Oates had increased the Devils' success rate by 2.8 percent and gotten them into the top half of the league as far as their power-play success rate.

    Based on the Caps' 2011-12 season numbers, if Oates could repeat the success he had in New Jersey with the Caps, then the team's power-play success rate was projected to go up to somewhere in the neighborhood of 19.5 percent.

    That would have been good enough for seventh in the NHL a season ago.

    Projections are nice, but reality is even better. About a month ago, the Caps power play was only operating at 16.2 percent efficiency, which was good but not great. Then, the power play started clicking on all levels.

    The Caps power play is currently operating at an astonishing efficiency rate of 26.6 percent. They are already almost seven percentage points better than where a potential best-case scenario had them, and the power play is ranked third in the NHL.

    Ovechkin and Mike Ribeiro have been the prime beneficiaries of the Caps' red-hot power play. Ovechkin leads the Caps with six power-play goals while Ribeiro is second with five.

    As long as the Caps power play keeps clicking as it has been, there is every reason to believe they have a playoff run in them.

4. The Play of Braden Holtby

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    How many times have we seen teams latch on to a hot goaltender and ride them far into the playoffs. The Caps can take the same sort of mentality and try to ride the recent play of Braden Holtby all the way back to the playoffs.

    Without question, when the season began, the Holtby who had been the hero of the 2012 playoffs was nowhere to be found.

    In the first five games he played this season, Holtby posted a 1-4-0 record with a 4.20 goals-against average and a .849 save percentage. Along the way, he lost his starting job to Michal Neuvirth—or so it seemed.

    On Feb. 7, in an ugly loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Holtby relieved Neuvirth after he gave up a second goal. We have not seen Neuvirth since then. For one reason or another, Coach Oates turned to Holtby at a critical juncture—and he has delivered.

    Holtby would go on to start the next 11 straight games for the Caps. His record was 8-3-0 with a 2.00 goals-against average, a .929 save percentage and three shutouts.

    More importantly, the Caps rode the hot play of Holtby and got back into the playoff conversation.

    One can also argue that the Caps seem to play better defense in front of Holtby than they do when someone else is in net. Perhaps it is a question of confidence or something else entirely. But the Caps seem to be a more stingy team with Holtby in net.

    For instance, in Holtby's past five starts, the Caps gave up an average of 32.6 shots on goal per game.

    On Saturday, in a very disappointing 5-2 loss to the New York Islanders, the Caps resorted to the poor play from earlier this season, as they basically gifted the game to the Isles by giving them six power-play opportunities.

    But the game against the Islanders was the first one not started by Holtby in the past 12 games—and the Caps allowed the Islanders to pepper rookie goalie, Philipp Grubauer, with 45 shots. That is a lot to ask of a guy making his first NHL start.

    Nevertheless, Holtby has been playing very well, and so long as he continues to play like he did in the 2012 playoffs, Caps fans can feel optimistic that he could potentially lead the team back to the playoffs this season.