The stage is now set for the Caps' biggest game of the season—a Tuesday night tilt with the Winnipeg Jets in D.C.—which will likely decide who wins the Southeast Division and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
It is certainly reasonable to assume that the Caps will win that game. After all, the Jets have not matched up well with the Caps this season. The Caps have taken three of four from the Jets, including all three of the games in Winnipeg by a combined score of 13-1.
The Jets did win the only matchup in Washington, though: a 4-2 win in the Caps second game of the season back on January 22.
Another compelling story that has developed is Alexander Ovechkin's quest for a third Rocket Richard trophy and possibly a third Hart Memorial Trophy. Could anyone have really imagined Ovi would be in the conversation for either award a month ago?
With 21 goals and 10 assists in his past 20 games, Ovi is very much in the conversation for both trophies, and his fantastic play is a major reason why the Caps sit poised to claim the Southeast Division crown for the fifth time in six seasons.
Ovi is as focused as I have seen him in years, and with the exception of the lackluster performance in Ottawa Thursday night, the Caps are playing as well as anyone in the NHL.
It sure seems like a playoff berth is going to happen for the Caps this season, a remarkable feat considering that awful 2-8-1 start. Once they get there though, what can we expect from the Caps' star players?
Which players might step up and possibly lead this team to places it has not been in some 15 years? Who might be the hero, and who could end up being the goat?
If the Caps are going to get to a place they have not been since 1998—namely the Eastern Conference Finals (ECF)—then they are going to require a supreme effort from the best players on the team. Exactly what will it take to get there? This article will explore that some.
For purposes of this article, I will be drawing some comparisons to the 1998 team, which is the only Caps team to ever reach the Stanley Cup Finals. I figure that for the Caps to repeat that feat—or at least reach the ECF—then several current stars are going to have to play at or near the level of their 1998 counterparts.
Here is a look at some expectations for the Caps' best players once the playoffs get under way.
If there is a member of the Capitals who might be under the most pressure to perform in the playoffs, it could very well be Martin Erat.
Erat was at the center of a hugely controversial trade executed by the Caps at the trade deadline, where the Caps acquired Erat and minor league prospect Michael Latta from the Nashville Predators. But they paid a heavy price to do so, as they traded one of the best prospects in the entire organization, Filip Forsberg, to the Preds to complete the deal (The Washington Post).
It was a trade that was quite unpopular on many of the Caps' social network sites and was heavily debated by many Caps fans. Regardless, by trading Forsberg for Erat, general manager George McPhee sent a strong message that the Caps were going all-in for the rest of the season.
McPhee said as much to the The Washington Post's Katie Carrera in an interview he made shortly after the trade was executed.
Erat's importance to the Caps is even higher now due to the uncertainty over Brooks Laich. It appears that Laich will avoid surgery, but there is no timetable for when or even if he will return to the lineup this season (via SBNation.com).
In Laich's absence, Erat has been enjoying his time on the Caps' second line, where he, Troy Brouwer and Mike Ribeiro are making life miserable for opposing defenses. That trio is only getting better, and if they continue on their present pace, then the Caps' chances of reaching the ECF rise exponentially.
This is an important point to note, because since Erat came to the Caps, he only has one goal and two assists. Still, one can see the chemistry building between Erat, Ribeiro and Brouwer. It will be essential for that to continue if the Caps are going to have a deep playoff run.
If you are looking for someone from the 1998 team to compare Erat to—as far as expectations and what sort of performance the Caps might need from Erat to reach the ECF—then Brian Bellows might be your man.
In 1998, the Caps beat the Boston Bruins in six games and then ousted the Ottawa Senators in five games to get to the ECF. Along the way, Bellows scored four goals, added four assists and had a plus-seven rating.
For the Caps to run the gauntlet that will be the Eastern Conference playoffs this season, I believe Erat is going to have to put up similar numbers. He is absolutely going to have to put up a similar efficiency rating. Erat is a minus-six on the season so far, although has has been plus-one since he came to the Caps.
Is it reasonable to expect a performance like that from Erat? I believe so, and he certainly has the skills necessary to record at least four goals and four assists. If any of the first two playoff series last longer, then it would be easier for him to do this. It would also become more essential for him to do so as well.
Expectations on Erat will be high when the playoffs get started, and they should be. If the Caps are going to excel, then Erat will have to be a key piece of the puzzle. I do not think he has to be or will be the most important piece.
But if Erat fails to produce, then the Caps' second line will suffer greatly, making it all the more difficult for the team to advance.
Mike Green's performance the past few weeks has more than a few people recalling the run he went on between 2008-2010.
During those two seasons, Green terrorized the NHL and redefined what a two-way defender could be. He scored 50 goals, added 99 assists, had a combined plus-63 rating for those two seasons, had 28 power-play goals and scored the game-winning goal four times.
Green was as good as you could get—at least during the regular season. Unfortunately, he vanished in the playoffs. During the 2009 playoffs, he only had one goal, eight assists and a minus-five rating. The following season, during the shocking loss to the Montreal Canadiens, Green failed to score and had only three assists.
Obviously, if the Caps are going to get to the ECF, Green will have to show up come playoff time. He has certainly picked the right time to get hot though.
Green has five goals and five assists in his past 10 games, although his minus-six rating over that period of time has to be a cause for concern.
Green is now second only to P.K. Subban in goals scored among NHL defensemen this season. That is all fine and great, but will it translate into anything but another disappointing playoff performance for Green?
In the 2012 playoffs, Green had a much better outing than in any of his prior playoff appearances. He blocked 28 shots—good enough for fourth on the Caps and 16th best of all the players who played in the playoffs.
Green also had a plus-five rating for the playoffs, making him third best on the team. He played a tough, tight, defensive style of hockey that the Caps fans had not seen before. Green even added in two goals and two assists along the way.
The Caps will need to have Green be productive and responsible, if they are going to have a deep playoff run this season. In his eighth year in the NHL, I believe Green will rise to the occasion.
Looking back at that 1998 team, the Caps rode a tremendous performance from Sergei Gonchar all the way to the ECF. Gonchar collected seven goals and had three assists during the Caps' run through the first two rounds of the playoffs. Gonchar was also a plus-nine through those first two rounds, having three power-play goals.
With the 2013 version of the Caps being somewhat more offensively balanced, I do not think Green will have to put up numbers quite like that—although no one will complain if he does—and I am not really sure it would be realistic to expect a performance like that.
I can see Green scoring five goals, getting three to four assists and having a plus-five rating. If the playoffs started today, then the Caps would have to play the New York Islanders and John Tavares, so that plus-five rating might be wishful thinking.
It will likely be Green's offensive play—especially on the power play—where he will be most needed, while Karl Alzner and John Carlson work on slowing down the Isles attack. If Green can score some goals and help keep the Caps' power play humming like it has all season, the ECF is very attainable.
If not, another early exit could be in the works.
Mike Ribeiro has been one of the most important members of the Capitals all season long. It would be folly to expect anything less of him come playoff time.
This season, Ribs has been as solid as they come. He was brought to D.C. to be a second-line center—mission accomplished on that front. More importantly, though, is how the Caps jelled and evolved around the stellar play of Ribeiro.
Perhaps the most important part of the Caps' offense—for which Ribeiro can take a lot of credit—is the Caps' power play. The Caps' power play leads the NHL, operating at a 26.1 percent efficiency rating.
On the power play, Ribeiro has been more productive than he has been at even strength. Ribeiro has 15 assists at even strength but 19 on the power play. He has 22 points at even strength but 25 on the power play.
Ribeiro's overall play has been about much more than the power play though. He is third on the Caps in goals (13), second in assists (34) and second in points (47).
Early in the season, Ribeiro was the man getting Alexander Ovechkin involved in the offense. As of late, he has been doing the same for Troy Brouwer.
Equally impressive is how Ribeiro has kept his production going despite all the distractions of whether or not he would be dealt at the trade deadline. Instead, Ribeiro remained in D.C. and will now have a chance to show the Caps exactly what he is worth during the playoffs.
The Caps will need all he can give. If the Caps are going to get to the ECF—or beyond—Ribs is going to have to put up some pretty big numbers. The problem is that Ribeiro does not have a ton of playoff experience, so it is difficult to know what to expect from him.
In 42 career playoff games, Ribs has only five goals, although he does have 20 assists. His best playoff performance—so far—was during the 2008 playoffs as a member of the Dallas Stars, when Ribeiro had three goals and 14 assists in 18 games.
I think we can expect Ribeiro to get at least three goals, although more goals will likely be required to get the Caps to the ECF. Hoping for Ribs to get 14 assists, though, might be asking for too much.
If Ribeiro can get up to the eight-to-10 assist mark, then I think the Caps have a great chance to go far and at least get to the ECF.
In 1998, one of the best Caps' players of all time was Peter Bondra. Though many like to draw comparisons between Bondra and Ovechkin, I think that Bondra's performance through the first two rounds in 1998 is what Ribeiro needs to try and—at a minimum—duplicate.
Bondra had only two goals and three assists through the first two rounds. It was in the ECF against the Buffalo Sabres where Bondra caught fire with four goals and an assist.
If Ribeiro can match Bondra's numbers—and there is every reason to believe he can do that with ease—the Caps should be fine.
And Ribeiro may just earn that long-term deal he has been searching for.
While much of the attention about the Caps' remarkable turnaround has centered on Alexander Ovechkin—and rightfully so—it has to be mentioned that neither Ovi or the Caps would be in their present position were it not for Nicklas Backstrom.
Ovi has 20 goals and 10 assists over the past 20 games. Well, Backstrom has four goals and 20 assists during that same time frame. In fact, it really was not until Ovechkin and Backstrom were consistently reunited on the Caps' top line that Ovi's numbers really took off.
Backstrom figured to be more of a goal scorer when the season began, but it has not really turned out that way. For the entire season, Backstrom only has seven goals. He is only ranked seventh on the Caps in goals scored.
Where Backstrom has really excelled has been as a setup man. He has 39 assists on the season, which is third best in the entire NHL. His 46 points are good enough for 10th in the NHL.
Backstrom's importance cannot be overlooked when it comes to the Caps at even strength. Whereas Mike Ribeiro has been more productive on the power play, Backstrom has been better when the Caps are skating five-on-five.
Backstrom has 24 assists while the Caps have been at even strength but only has 15 while on the power play. He has 28 points on even strength while only scoring 18 on the power play.
This is where Backstrom will be crucial if the Caps are to have any hope of a deep playoff run in 2013. While the Caps' power play has been running roughshod over the NHL for most of the season, the same thing happened during the 2009-2010 season.
During the 2009-2010 season, the Caps power play led the NHL with a 25.2 percent efficiency rate. But during the playoff disaster against the Montreal Canadiens, the Caps' power play hit rock-bottom, failing on 32 of 33 opportunities.
The Caps, who relied on their power play all season long, could not make the adjustment and suffered a stunning upset. If the Caps' have another power outage this season, then they will have to make up for that with their even strength play.
Backstrom will be their best bet to bridge the gap if things go in that direction.
If there is a player from the 1998 team who I think Backstrom will have to emulate, it might be Joe Juneau. For long-time Caps fans, Juneau scored probably the biggest goal in Caps' history, when he scored the Eastern Conference game-winning goal in overtime of Game 6 against the Buffalo Sabres.
Leading up to that moment, though, Juneau was quite effective in getting the Caps to the ECF. During the first two rounds of the 1998 playoffs, Juneau scored three goals and had seven assists. Like Backstrom, Juneau was a center and did many little things right as he led the Caps to the ECF.
Backstrom scoring three goals and getting seven assists is not only reasonable, it should be expected. In reality, it will likely take a bit more than that from Backstrom for the Caps to succeed.
Five goals and 10 assists would probably be sufficient. And if Backstrom can put up numbers like that, then the Caps' chances to reach the ECF—or even further—are going to be quite good.
So what can we expect for an encore performance from Braden Holtby this postseason?
Last year, Holtby came out of nowhere and very nearly took the Caps to the ECF. Most fans recall that Holtby outplayed Tim Thomas and led the Caps to a stunning upset of defending champion Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
He then very nearly repeated that feat against Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist and the top-seeded New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Caps eventually fell in seven games, but a playoff hero had been born.
Holtby posted a 1.95 goals against average during the 2012 NHL playoffs (ESPN), which was third best amongst playoff goalies who played in more than 10 games.
Holtby also had a .935 save percentage, which was second best among playoff goalies who played in more than 10 playoff games.
And yet, it still was not quite enough to get the Caps to the next level. In all likelihood, Holtby will have to be even better if the Caps will return to the Conference Finals for the first time in 15 years.
After a pretty poor start to the season, Holtby has played very well ever since he relieved Michal Neuvirth in the Caps loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on February 7. Holtby is now in the Top 10 in several key categories for goaltenders, including wins with 21 (good for sixth), saves with 977 (good for ninth) and shutouts with four (good for fourth in the NHL).
Still, Holtby's goals against average is a bit disappointing at 2.59 percent (27th in the NHL) as is his save percentage at .920 percent (16th in the NHL). Those numbers will have to come up quite a bit if the Caps are going to have a deep playoff run.
If we look back to the 1998 team, then it would be great if Holtby turns in a performance like Olaf Kolzig did as he led the Caps to the ECF. All Kolzig did through the first two rounds of the playoffs in 1998 was register a 1.82 goals against average, a .950 save percentage and had three shutouts.
When you look at Kolzig's numbers from 1998 and compare them to what Holtby did last year, it sure looks like Holtby will have to get his goals against average down to about 1.85 percent and get his save percentage up to about .940 percent or better. A shutout or two wouldn't hurt either.
That seems like a lot to ask of Holtby, particularly with the way the season has gone so far. In fact, it may be too much to ask—and that won't bode very well for the Caps' chances once the playoffs start.
As far as expectations for the Caps' best players in the playoffs, no one will face higher expectations than Alexander Ovechkin.
And after what the "Great 8" have done over the past 20 games, there is every reason to believe he might just meet those expectations.
Ovi has 21 goals in the past 20 games. It has been over a month, since Ovi went back-to-back games without scoring at least a goal. He has flown to the top of the NHL leaders in goals scored with 30 on the season.
Ovi is poised to claim the Rocket Richard trophy for a third time, and if that happens, then Ovi will be the first player to win the trophy three times—or at least since the trophy assumed its current name.
What Ovechkin has done this season is nothing short of remarkable. With three games remaining in the season, Ovi can surpass the goals he scored during the entire 2010-2011 season, when he scored 32. Ovechkin's performance has made a very real case for him to also capture a third Hart Memorial trophy as the NHL MVP.
As for what he can accomplish during the playoffs, the sky appears to be the limit. Ovi is a smarter and more clever player this year. He has become so good at just drifting to the left faceoff circle and uncorking that incredible one-timer.
He knows where his sweet spot is and knows how to get open better than anyone else in the NHL. All these years later and teams are still powerless to stop it.
This is especially true on the power play, where Ovi has scored an NHL leading 16 power-play goals. Ovi also shoots the puck more than anyone else, as he leads the NHL with 208 shots.
The question now is whether Ovi can finally break through and lead the Caps—at a minimum—to the ECF. On two prior occasions, Ovi has gotten the Caps to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals only to fall short.
In 2009, Ovi had a great run with 11 goals and 10 assists. Last year, he was not nearly so productive, as he only had five goals and four assists. Without question, the Caps will need the Ovechkin from the 2009 playoffs, if they are going to go far this postseason.
Ironically, if there is a player from the 1998 Caps who Ovechkin should try and copy, it would be the man most responsible for his resurgence this season: head coach Adam Oates.
In 1998, Oates was the MVP for the Caps during the first two rounds of the playoffs. With five goals and six assists, Oates was the most balanced player on the Caps, and it was his inspired play that carried the Caps to the ECF.
Ovi will have to exceed Oates' performance quite a bit to get the Caps back to the ECF. He might not need to get to 11 goals and 10 assists, as he did during the 2009 playoffs. Then again, that might be exactly what he needs to do.
The problem is that Ovechkin has failed to score more than five goals in any playoff campaign since the 2009 playoffs. I think we can expect more from him this time around.
The only question is will it be enough?