Does Alex Ovechkin's Hot Run Make Washington Capitals a Stanley Cup Contender?

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistApril 23, 2013

Alex Ovechkin has keyed Washington's regular-season finish.
Alex Ovechkin has keyed Washington's regular-season finish.Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The start of the 2013 season brought a tremendous sigh of relief to the NHL.

After a four-month lockout, things were back to normal. Or were they? 

Once teams started reporting to training camp, a basic league-wide philosophy was evoked almost universally. With a 48-game season, it was all about getting off to a hot start. Begin the season slowly and a team would likely get buried.

That idea certainly made sense, but it was not true. Case in point: the Washington Capitals.

The Capitals got off to a miserable start under rookie head coach Adam Oates. After their first 11 games, Washington was 2-8-1 and were in last place in the Southeast Division.

It appeared that Alex Ovechkin was just a shell of the superstar he had been earlier in his career and that Oates had to go through quite a bit of growing pains.

But after a 5-2 home loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in early February, the Capitals started to improve. They won six of their next nine games to find their stride, but they appeared to be in over their heads when the high-flying Boston Bruins came to town March 5.

At the time, the Bruins were playing sensational hockey and they jumped out to a 3-0 first-period lead with very little effort. The Caps slowed the Bruins' attack, scored two goals in the second period to get close and then tied the score in the third period.

When Eric Fehr scored a spectacular goal in overtime, the Caps were no longer struggling.

They became a confident team that night and have kept their foot on the gas pedal since that time.

They asserted themselves in the Southeast Division when they won a pair of road games at Winnipeg in late March. The Caps knew at that point that they had the team to win their division and did so with a 5-3 win at home over the Jets Tuesday night.

Ovechkin fittingly scored the final goal, an empty-netter that went for his league-leading 31st tally. He's been on fire down the stretch, scoring 21 goals in his last 19 games.

The Caps will go into the playoffs as the third seed in the Eastern Conference.They just may be the second-best team in the conference when the playoffs get underway.

Washington would still have a long way to go if they are going to compete with the Pittsburgh Penguins in a best-of-seven playoff series.

However, the Montreal Canadiens and the Bruins have been slumping badly with the playoffs on the horizon. Both of those teams have the talent to turn it around, but the Capitals appear better at this point.

Ovechkin is scoring clutch goals, the Capitals defense is active and breaking up rushes and Braden Holtby has proven to be a big-time goalie.

Holtby beat Boston in last year's playoffs and pushed the New York Rangers to seven games in the second round

He got off to a rough start this year, but has followed his team's lead and turned it around with a 22-12-1 record, a 2.59 goals against average and a .920 save percentage.

The Caps will likely face the New York Islanders, New York Rangers or Ottawa Senators in the first round.

They have the firepower to beat any of those teams and make a legitimate run in the Eastern Conference.

Three months ago, the Capitals were all but buried because of their slow start. However, they have learned that it's not how you start, but how you finish.

They will also have a chance to write another brilliant finish in the postseason.