Getting hot at the right time is fine and great but a bigger factor that will lead to the Caps success in the 2013 playoffs is just how experienced the Caps now are.
The 2007-2008 team was just as hot as this version of the Caps, maybe even hotter. But that team was making its first-ever playoff appearance. In many ways, they were just happy to be there.
Fast forward six years later to the present and the 2013 version of the Caps—while thrilled to make the playoffs after such a bad start—want much, much more than just another trip to the postseason.
Whereas the 2008 team had seen and experienced nothing in the way of playoff hockey, many members of the 2013 Caps have seen and experienced it all—and then some.
The Caps are no longer an untested playoff team. They are battle-hardened veterans of quite possibly the toughest and most demanding of any playoff tournament in any sport. While true postseason success has, thus far, largely eluded the Caps, if one goes back to look at their playoff history, one can easily see the progress the team has made and how they have earned a new wrinkle each and every year.
In 2008, the team learned that talent and raw emotion alone were not enough. They also learned how to rally from a 3-1 series deficit. And, unfortunately, they learned about heartbreak as they fell to the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime of Game 7.
In 2009, the Caps again faced a 3-1 series deficit, this time against the New York Rangers. The Caps then learned how to successfully rally from such a hole as they beat the Rangers 2-1 in Game 7. The Caps learned how to win a playoff series.
The next round taught the Caps that when two evenly matched teams are brought together, it's the tiny little things that often make a difference. In one of the all-time great playoff series, the Caps and Pittsburgh Penguins put on a series for the ages. In the end, the Pens were the better team and the Caps had to learn to accept just how close they had come to getting to the next level.
The following season, the Caps took that bitterness and frustration and flattened the rest of the NHL. The Caps steamrolled their way to a 54-15-13 regular season mark and became the first non-Original Six team to crack the 120-point barrier. The Caps also won their first President's Trophy.
But they still had not learned how to play playoff hockey. Against the badly overmatched Montreal Canadiens, the Caps took a 3-1 series lead and went back to D.C. to close the series out. The Caps, who were 30-5-6 at Verizon Center that season, came out on cruise control and let the series slip away. The Habs would complete a shocking comeback and would beat the Caps in seven games.
In that Montreal series, the Caps learned that all the offensive fire-power in the world won’t help beat a goalie playing out of his mind. Yes, Jarslav Halak played out of his mind to steal the series. But the Caps never learned how to react if they had to play defensively. They simply did not know how to win games like that and it cost them the season.
The following season, the Caps were again the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. In the opening round, they again got a 3-1 series lead, this time on the Rangers. Unlike the previous season though, the Caps did not come out flat in Game 5 and they took care of business in eliminating the Rangers.
Unfortunately though, the Caps seemed to then forget that the playoffs continued on as they were swept in the Conference Semifinals by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Once again, there was something to be learned, namely that the playoffs are four rounds long and not just one.
Last season, the Caps came in as the No. 7 seed. Against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, not many people gave the Caps any chance at all. Instead, the Caps and Bruins played an amazing series, the only one in NHL playoff history where each game was decided by just one goal. The Caps would ultimately prevail with an overtime win in Game 7.
That one game showed how much the Caps had actually grown. They won Game 7 in overtime on the road and as the lower seeded team. It was the type of win that seemed to signify a team that had come of age.
In the next round against the Rangers though, the Caps discovered they had more to learn and the main thing they needed to learn was to develop a killer instinct. They could not put the Rangers away in a triple overtime Game 3 classic. In Game 5, they led with just 6.6 seconds remaining only to have the game slip away. In Game 7, they again just could not match the Rangers intensity and, once again, the Caps fell short of the Eastern Conference Finals.
So what does this mean for the 2013 playoffs? It simply means that this team has seen everything. There will hardly be anything that will get thrown at them for which they will not be prepared.
Of the four teams they might face in the opening round—the Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators or New York Islanders—only the Rangers will have similar playoff experience, and the Caps and Rangers know each other so well that all bets are off when those two teams play.
The Sens have just last year's playoff experience to go off of while the Isles will be making their first trip to the postseason since 2007. The Leafs will be making their first trip to the playoffs since 2004. You have to like the Caps chances against any of those teams.
If the Caps can get past the first round—and they should— then I think they will be able to draw on all their playoff experience to make a very significant playoff run.