Will Underdog Role Help or Hurt the Washington Capitals?

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistApril 17, 2013

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 16:  Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals shoots and scores in the second period against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Verizon Center on April 16, 2013 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The Washington Capitals are going to win the Southeast Division and take the third seed in the Eastern Conference.

That's going to happen unless the Caps have a sudden reversal of the current eight-game winning streak they are one.

But will they remain an underdog once the playoffs start, and if they do, will it help or hurt them in the postseason?

The 2013 season appeared to be a lost year for the Capitals during the first month of the season. Rookie head coach Adam Oates was not getting a consistent effort from his players. Alex Ovechkin was a shell of the superstar he had been in the prime of his career.

The Capital were losers. They started the season losing eight of 10 games and they appeared to be in disarray. Owner Ted Leonsis had to be panicking inside his office, wondering how his superstar and his teammates had turned into such a pathetic bunch.

But when you have a coach like Adam Oates who had been to the Stanley Cup Finals the year before as an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils, you are not going to give up. Oates was one of the most creative players on the ice and he didn't always succeed at first.

When he got stopped in one game, he would come up with a new strategy the next time out. That's all he did this year.

He simplified things and demanded maximum effort from his players. He didn't do it with loud threats or screaming press conferences. He just made sure his players got the message.

The Caps have bought in and they are playing the best hockey of any team in the Eastern Conference as the season has hit the deep stretch.

Still, hockey people are hesitant to change their opinions. The Caps are still from the lowly Southeast Division and the thinking has been that the Eastern team that finishes as the sixth seed will have a solid advantage over the third-seeded Caps.

The Florida Panthers finished first in the division last year and they were bounced out of the playoffs in the first round by the New Jersey Devils.

Why would it be any different this year when the stingy Ottawa Senators (currently in sixth place). The Senators are a thoroughly stingy team with outstanding goaltending. Surely they can shut down the Caps, right?

Wrong. If the Caps go in as underdogs, they are going to come into the playoffs with a full head of steam. They will attempt to punish the Senators—or any other team that finishes as the sixth seed—in the Eastern Conference.

If they suddenly get respect from the oddsmakers, public and media and get recognized as a legitimate favorite, that could have a negative impact.

It's not likely because Oates has found the winning formula—Ovechkin scoring, hard hitting defense and reliable goaltending from Braden Holtby—but the Caps have failed as favorites before.

Oates may be a rookie head coach, but he is all about winning. That was true as a player and an assistant coach.

He is not likely to let a hot streak and a few laudatory media stories get to his players' heads. They should be prepared when the playoffs start.

They will relish an underdog's role and they will not let a favorite's role bother them. This team may be ready to pull off a few playoff surprises.