As improbable as it seemed a month ago, the Washington Capitals are going to the NHL playoffs for a sixth consecutive season. Not only that, but the Caps will enter the playoffs as the Southeast division champions and the No. 3 seed.
In one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent memory, the Caps have officially laid to rest the memory of a dreadful 2-8-1 start.
Not too bad for a team that seemed dead in the water and was 10 points out of the division lead back on March 10.
Not even Thursday night's 2-1 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators could really put a damper on things. The Sens were playing for their playoff lives and it showed—and the Caps still almost beat them.
So now it is on to the playoffs for the Caps and time for all those nagging and semi-painful questions to be asked yet again.
Is this the year? Is this finally the year? Can the Caps actually get to the Eastern Conference Finals—or perhaps even further?
Longtime Caps' fans will be understandably pessimistic. With the exception of the 1998 playoffs, the NHL's annual tournament has been a house of horrors for the Caps.
The Caps have been to the playoffs 23 times in their history and have never won the Stanley Cup. They have only made it to the Conference Finals twice, getting swept by the Boston Bruins in 1990 and then breaking through against the Buffalo Sabres in 1998.
There have been far more heartbreaking and disappointing moments for the Caps than there have been highlight moments.
There was the Easter Epic, otherwise known as Game 7 of the 1987 Patrick Division Semifinals where the Caps lost in the 4th overtime to the New York Islanders.
What is more depressing is that is not the only four-overtime game the Caps have lost: They fell in Game 4 of the 1996 playoffs to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens are a separate subcategory of agony for the Caps as they have beaten the Caps seven of the eight times the have met in the playoffs, rallying from a 3-1 series deficit twice and a 2-0 series deficit twice more.
Guess who will be the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference this season?
During the Alexander Ovechkin era, the Caps have again failed to come through. They have never reached the Eastern Conference Finals and, along the way, endured one of the biggest upsets in NHL playoff history when they fell to the No. 8 seeded Montreal Canadiens in 2010, blowing yet another 3-1 series lead in the process.
But fret not, Caps' fans: There is plenty of reason to be optimistic and confident about the Caps' chances this postseason.
Here then are the five biggest reasons the Washington Capitals should be confident about the 2013 NHL playoffs.
If timing is truly everything then the Caps could not have picked a better time to get really hot.
It seems almost impossible, but there was a time this year when the Caps were the worst team in the NHL. On March 10, the Caps got clobbered by the New York Rangers—on home ice no less—4-1. At that time, the Caps sat a full 10 points out of the division lead and any notion of making the playoffs seemed like nothing but an insane fantasy.
The Caps would then get embarrassed at Verizon Center by the Carolina Hurricanes 4-0 and any remaining hope seemed lost. In reality, that defeat seemed to turn things around.
Two nights later in Raleigh, the Caps fell behind to the 'Canes 2-0 but rallied to win 3-2. From that moment on, the two teams went in opposite directions.
Since that game, the Caps have gone an unreal 15-4-2. Included in that run was a recent eight-game winning streak. The Caps have picked up at least a point in 13 of their past 14 games.
Over their past 10 games, the Caps are 8-1-1. Only the Chicago Blackhawks have posted a similar mark over their past 10 games—and the Blackhawks just won the President's Trophy.
Without question, the Caps have peaked at the right time. They have learned Adam Oates' system, worked out all the kinks of that system and are playing their best hockey at just the right time of year.
To be fair, the Caps peaking at the end of the season is nothing new. In the six straight years they have made the playoffs, the Caps usually get red-hot at the end of the season.
In 2008, the Caps won 11 of their final 12 games to capture the Southeast division. The inexperienced Caps would fall in a seven game classic series with the Philadelphia Flyers.
In 2009, the Caps finished the season 6-2-2. The Caps then had to rally from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the New York Rangers before falling to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins in one of the all-time great series in NHL playoff history.
In 2010, the Caps finished the season 7-1-3 en-route to the teams only President's Trophy. It meant absolutely nothing as the Caps suffered a stunning loss to the No. 8 seeded Montreal Canadiens.
In 2011, the Caps again finished strong with a 7-2-1 record. This garnered the Caps the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and they would beat the Rangers in five games. But they would again fall apart in the Conference Semifinals as they were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
In 2012, the Caps had to get hot just to make the playoffs. They finished the season with a 6-2-2 record to actually grab the No. 7 seed. They would then go on to upset the Boston Bruins in seven games before falling to the Rangers in seven games.
So, arguably, the Caps hot-streak is not such a big deal. I think otherwise. The Caps had to go on an unbelievable tear just to get to the playoffs and, along the way, they just took the Southeast division by force. True, it is a very similar run to what they did in 2008. But that was a very young, very green and very different Caps team from the one heading into the playoffs this season.
These Caps will be filled with confidence at just the right time of year and will know they are playing their best hockey. With everything the Caps have overcome this season, I believe that will carry them very far.
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.
As Alexander Ovechkin slammed home an empty net goal that salted away the Southeast division title on Tuesday night—and chants of MVP...MVP rained down through Verizon Center—I couldn't help but laugh a little.
I suddenly had a vision in my head that the Verizon Center crowd had been switched up and filled with WWE fans and they were chanting something different to Ovi, yet equally appropriate:
You've Still Got It...You've Still Got It...
Indeed, the Great 8 is great once again. He has proven all of his critics wrong. So many thought he was done, that his best years were behind him. I was as guilty as many who thought that. I was wrong. We were all wrong.
In the previous slide, I noted that the Caps' collective playoff experience would serve them well during the 2013 playoffs. The same could be said for Ovechkin individually. Ovi has lived through all the trials and tribulations of the Caps for the past six years and he may very well have emerged a better player for it.
He is no longer the 21-year-old phenom playing with just unbridled emotion and passion, as he was in 2008. Nor is he out to prove that he is the best player in the world, as he did when he squared off with Sidney Crosby in 2009.
He has endured the crushing collapse of 2010, carried the team on his back past the opening round in 2011 and then watched in 2012 as then coach Dale Hunter routinely benched his best player due to concerns over his defensive skills and, perhaps, his leadership as well.
2013, however, has been nothing short of a remarkable comeback story for Ovi. He has now scored 23 goals in the past 22 games and 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 32 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. Ovi currently leads Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos by three goals with just one game left for each superstar.
Ovi has also finally learned what it means to be the captain. He has placed the team squarely on his shoulders this season and led them from a really dark place all the way back to the division title.
You can see it in the way he plays now. His play has been unselfish and he has been absolutely deadly as far as getting teammates like Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson into the flow of things. Ovi's play has made the Caps' top line one of the most feared in the NHL, and for good reason.
More refreshing is how Ovechkin is no longer predictable. Yes, he loves to float over to the left faceoff circle and unleash that unstoppable one-timer. But he will switch to the right wing on occasion and, unlike earlier in the season, he seems quite comfortable on that side.
Or he will suddenly cut into the slot or make a sharp move to the net when the defender is not expecting it. More and more, we are seeing some of the more skilled moves of the Ovechkin of the past coming into play. We see him spinning, deking and, as he did against Ottawa Thursday night, just flat-out using his speed to get the better of a defender.
Ovi is just a more well-rounded and complete player than he has ever been before. And don't fool yourself into thinking otherwise—he is as hungry for the Stanley Cup as he has ever been.
Take all of that into consideration and the Caps should feel very confident that Ovechkin might very well have his greatest playoff performance yet.
A year ago, as the Caps prepared to take on the Boston Bruins in the opening round of the 2012 NHL playoffs, the main concern was that the Caps just did not have enough depth to match up with the defending champions.
Obviously, depth is not everything and the Caps showed that when they upset the Bruins and then extended the much-deeper New York Rangers to a decisive Game 7.
Then again, having a lot of depth certainly won't hurt your chances.
Heading into the 2013 NHL playoffs, the Caps are deeper and more balanced than they were a year ago. What is even more encouraging is that all four lines are contributing in one fashion or another.
The top line of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson has been nothing short of spectacular lately—and that is an understatement.
Ovi's excellence was discussed in the previous slide. Backstrom has five goals and 22 assists in his past 22 games. MoJo has five goals and 15 assists over that same time frame. Those are not just good numbers—they are downright scary.
The Caps' second line consists of Martin Erat, Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer. Brouwer is second on the team in goals with 19. He just recently had a two-goal outburst against the Montreal Canadiens, which no one noticed because Ovi also scored two goals that night.
Ribeiro has had an MVP caliber season for the Caps. He is third on the Caps in goals with 13, second in assists with 34 and third on the team in points with 47.
Erat came over to the Caps in a trade deadline deal that saw the Caps deal promising prospect Filip Forsberg to Nashville (The Washington Post). Erat has not done a ton since he got to Washington but it is easy to see some real chemistry developing betweenErat, Ribeiro and Brouwer.
The Caps' third line consists of Jason Chimera, Mathieu Perreault and Eric Fehr. This is another line that has been playing better as of late. Chimera has not had the best season but he has been stepping up his game lately. Fehr leads the Caps with a plus-14 rating.Perreault has shown some great vision and exceptional play-making skills this season.
In other words, opponents would be foolish to expect a break when the Caps' third line is on the ice.
The Caps' fourth line consists of Aaron Volpatti, Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle. Now these guys might not score a ton of goals but do they ever play hard. They are pests. They are checkers. They set the tone; do all the dirty, nasty and grinding sort of work and just flat-out wear down the opposition.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Hendricks is third on the Caps in hits with 89 while Volpatti is fifth with 78.
Watch a replay of the Caps 5-1 win over Montreal from last weekend. When the Caps' fourth line was on the ice, the Canadiens were under constant siege. The Caps' fourth line is, in many ways, just as effective as their top line.
As proof of how deep the Caps are, both Fehr and Volpatti were signed to two-year extensions this past week (via NBC Sports).
And the Caps still might get Joel Ward and Brooks Laich back as the playoffs move along.
This might very well be the most balanced and deep the Caps have ever been heading into the playoffs. This will be vital if whoever they face in the opening round is somehow able to contain Ovechkin. Someone else will have to step up and carry the load.
For the first time in six years, the Caps will have multiple candidates who can accomplish just that.
The final reason the Washington Capitals should feel confident about their chances this postseason is because they possess the best power-play unit in the NHL.
The Caps currently rank No. 1 in the NHL in power-play efficiency, hitting at a rate of 25.8 percent. That is almost a full two percentage points better than the Pittsburgh Penguins at 24 percent.
It has been like this almost all season for the Caps, whose power play has been just lethal against opponents. This has been particularly true for Alexander Ovechkin, who leads the NHL with 16 power-play goals.
It is not as if the Caps get more power-play opportunities than other teams either. The Caps have had 159 power-play opportunities this season which is only 15th-most in the NHL, right in the middle of the pack. That actually makes the Caps' power-play unit even more formidable. They are making the most of their opportunities.
The puck movement on the power play has been sensational. It does not matter who is placed on the power play-unit. Each man understands his role and understands the system so perfectly that there are hardly any mistakes made. Teams need to be very afraid to put the Caps on the power play this postseason. It will be a sure-fire way to get scored on.
As the Caps power play continued to excel this season, it was hard not to draw comparisons to the 2009-2010 team. That team also led the NHL in power-play efficiency that season with a 25.2 percent success rate. We all know, however, what happened once the playoffs began as the Montreal Canadiens stuffed the Caps power play, allowing only one goal in 33 power-play chances against them.
Could that happen again this season? Sure. But how often does lighting really strike twice? Perhaps more importantly is that I just don't see this year's edition of the Caps allowing something like that to happen. They are too experienced and just too efficient on the power play to allow a repeat of that to take place.
Moreover, when I look at the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, New York Islanders or Ottawa Senators—or for that matter any of the goalies in the Eastern Conference—I don't see anyone being able to stand on his head as Jaroslav Halak did during the 2010 playoffs.
Obviously, Henrik Lundqvist has the potential to do that, but the Caps know him so well that it would be very hard for even Lundqvist to shut the Caps' power play down completely.
After Lundqvist, Toronto's James Reimer might have the potential to shut the Caps power play down—at least for a little while. But to repeat what Halak did? No, I just don't see that happening this year.
And even if it does, I think the 2013 Caps will have learned from the 2010 team and will figure out a way to score anyway.
The Caps should feel very confident that its power play can get the job done and, if it does, the sky is the limit for how far they can go this year.