What Washington Capitals Must Do to Hit Their Stride Going into the Playoffs
With a 5-3 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night, the Washington Capitals officially locked up the franchise's fifth Southeast Division title in six years, and more importantly, ensured that they'll be appearing in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the sixth consecutive season.
It wasn't easy, as the Capitals needed to overcome a dreadful 2-9-1 start to the season, but in the end, Adam Oates' squad dug itself out of the hole by being arguably the league's most dominant team during the final six weeks of the regular season.
Now, Oates and his coaching staff will turn their collective attention toward scoreboards across the Eastern Conference, as the Caps wait to see what team they'll be taking on in Round 1.
Heading into the postseason, regardless of opponent, here is a look a what the Caps need to do in preparation for what hopes to be a lengthy playoff run.
Big Production out of Foot Soldiers
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In the Caps' division-clinching victory over the Jets, it's true that Washington again received strong performances from its stars, as Mike Green, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom all registered points, but it was the team's role players who were the story.
Bottom-six forwards Mathieu Perreault, Jason Chimera and Matt Hendricks all tallied goals, and rugged rearguard John Erskine continued his strong play with an assist and two goal-saving efforts in the first period to keep the Caps ahead.
All year long, the Caps have been getting key contributions from less heralded skaters, and if the team is going to make a multi-round postseason run, that trend will have to continue.
A Hot Holtby
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Thus far, much of the Caps' late-season success can be attributed to the stellar play of first-year starting goaltender Braden Holtby, who has compiled a sparkling 22-12-1 record, including wins in eight of his last nine games.
After his breakout performance during the 2012 postseason, Holtby has to be considered an X-factor for the Capitals, because if he plays like he did a year ago, he's capable of stealing a couple of games for Washington in any seven-game series.
This season, Holtby has staked his claim to the No. 1 role in the Caps' crease by outplaying Michal Neuvirth early on, and though his Czech counterpart has been good when given the opportunity to start, Holtby has been the team's most reliable option down the stretch.
He's no longer a potential one-hit wonder, because after the season Holtby's had, he's now a viable NHL starting goaltender.
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Heading into the team's final two games of the season, the Capitals boast the league's most dangerous power-play unit, scoring on more than 26 percent of the team's opportunities with the extra man.
This shouldn't come as any real surprise given Oates' success in designing successful power-play units, as well as the enviable number of top-flight offensive weapons the first-year bench boss has at his disposal.
The additions of Mike Ribeiro and Martin Erat have given the Caps enough offensive firepower to ice two dangerous power-play units, and the the re-emergence of Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin as game-breakers from the point has opposing goalies bracing for the worst at a second's notice.
In the postseason, having a hot power play can be the difference-maker in a close series, but if that's the case, the Caps will also need to improve on the penalty kill, as Washington currently lays claim to the third-worst unit in the league in that regard.
The Dynamic Duo Must Produce
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During the early stages of the season, the Caps' attack relied heavily upon Mike Ribeiro, but during the second half of the lockout-shortened campaign, Washington's superstar duo of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom has stolen the spotlight by producing offense by the truckload.
In the last 21 games, Ovechkin has 22 goals and 33 points, his Swedish running mate has surged to third in the league in assists, and the Caps' offense has looked like the juggernaut it was during the first two years of the Bruce Boudreau era in Washington.
Going forward, the Caps will ultimately go as far as Backstrom and Ovechkin take them. If they perform like the have been, there's no telling how deep Washington could go.
But if they don't, it'll be another early postseason exit for the Capitals.