Complete Guide to the Washington Capitals' Playoff Push
With just six games remaining, the Washington Capitals have climbed into the driver's seat in the Southeast Division and appear poised to capture the franchise's fifth division title in six seasons.
But it hasn't been easy.
After starting the season with just two wins in the team's first 11 games, the Caps came back from the dead and grabbed hold of the lead in the race for the Southeast crown, with the captain and franchise player leading the way.
No, Washington hasn't cemented its status as a Stanley Cup contender, but assuming the Capitals hang on to a postseason berth, there's no reason to count them out at this stage.
Heading into the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, here's a look at the factors in play for the Capitals' postseason drive.
For the first time since the 2010 Olympics, Alex Ovechkin is the game's most dangerous sniper, which in turn has the Washington Capitals boasting the NHL's best quick-strike offense.
And that means that until Sidney Crosby returns to full strength, Ovechkin's Capitals are capable of beating anyone in the Eastern Conference.
Sure, the Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers are all still legitimate contenders, but outside of Pittsburgh, who is honestly capable of containing Ovechkin for the balance of a seven-game series?
The correct answer has yet to be determined, but at least for the time being, the Russian superstar is producing at a level that he hasn't reached since losing out on the Rocket Richard Trophy on the final day of the 2009-10 season, and there's no reason to doubt him now.
Despite cooling off slightly since his five-goal weekend performance a week ago, Ovechkin has done enough to maintain his lead in the race for the Rocket, and if that continues to be the case, there won't be a single team in the East that will want to face the Caps in Round 1.
During the Bruce Boudreau era, the Capitals regularly boasted the NHL's most efficient power play, and though it struggled during the early stages of Adam Oates' tenure behind the bench, Washington once again has the league's most dangerous extra-man attack.
In essence, this is because Oates has the team playing with the same mentality he did: Move the puck, stay active and look for the world-class sniper to get open.
That's what Oates did when he played alongside Brett Hull during the former St. Louis star's 86-goal campaign in 1990-91, and that's exactly what Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Mike Ribeiro have taken to heart in recent weeks in D.C., as Ovechkin has been doing a superb job of finding open ice on the power play.
Given that Ovechkin leads the league with 14 power-play tallies, it's obvious that the Caps will go as far as their special teams will take them.
On another note, it was very encouraging to see Troy Brouwer chip in a power-play goal in each of the Caps' last two games, because it showed that even when opposing defenses key on Ovechkin, there are other offensive weapons capable of contributing.
Braden Holtby's Maturation
A year ago, Capitals fans were wondering whether an untested 22-year-old was capable of backstopping a seventh-seeded team to an upset against the defending Stanley Cup champions lead by the reigning Conn Smythe and Vezina winner in Tim Thomas.
Well, after finding out that Braden Holtby was more than able to do just that, Caps fans should have little to fear, right?
Not quite, because though Holtby's played lights-out hockey down the stretch for Oates' Capitals, Washington isn't out of the woods yet, as the team still needs to win at least four of its last six to lock up home-ice advantage.
As we've seen in young 'tenders like Corey Crawford, Sergei Bobrovsky and Mike Smith in recent years, regular-season success doesn't always translate to postseason fortune, but given Holtby's performance in 2012-13, the Caps have a lot to feel confident about in the crease.
Beyond Ovechkin, Green, Backstrom, Ribeiro and Brouwer, the Capitals have received solid performances from the their secondary cast, especially then the team's top offensive weapons struggled during the earlier stages of the season.
Joel Ward, Eric Fehr and Mathieu Perreault have all enjoyed strong seasons, and though Jason Chimera and Matt Hendricks have fallen off offensively, Washington has been bolstered by consistently solid outings from the bottom six.
And that's important, especially come playoff time.
A year ago, when the Caps needed goals against No. 2 seed Boston in the team's first-round clash against the Bruins, who came up big?
Oh, that's right, it was Hendricks and Ward who supplied the goals during Washington's Game 7 victory over the reigning champs.