But what will it take for the Caps to win the Stanley Cup?
Here is the Washington Capitals complete blueprint to win the 2013 Stanley Cup.
But the key for the Capitals in terms of penalty killing was to minimize the number of times per game that their penalty killers were called upon. When the Caps killed three or fewer penalties during the 2013 season, they were 22-9-0. But when they Caps were forced to kill more than three penalties, they were 5-9-3. (ESPN.com)
That was not the only penalty-killing trend. Here are the Capitals' number of times shorthanded by period, along with their NHL rank in parentheses:
The third period is a very bad time to go shorthanded so frequently. That is especially true in the playoffs. Transgressions in the first and second periods can be overcome, but mistakes in the final frame or overtime could cost the Capitals a game. Or a series.
Playoff goals are hard to come by. To succeed in the playoffs, the Washington Capitals must receive production from unlikely sources.
The postseason career of Jason Chimera provides an excellent example of this phenomenon.
Chimera has played in 36 career postseason games, tallying seven goals and 10 assists for a total of 17 points.
In the 24 playoff games he played against an opponent other than the New York Rangers, Chimera has two goals, eight assists and 10 points. That is good for 0.08 goals per game and 0.42 points per game. By no means is that prodigious playoff production.
But in the 12 playoff games he has played against the New York Rangers over the course of two series, Chimera has five goals, two assists and seven points. That equates to 0.42 goals per game and 0.58 goals per game. The 34-year-old winger becomes a scoring machine under the bright lights of Broadway.
To win a playoff series, the Capitals may need a goalscoring outburst from an unlikely source such as Jason Chimera. But to make a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Capitals will need an unsung hero to keep scoring for the duration of the postseason.
Somewhere, John Druce is nodding his head.
We've established that goal scoring can be difficult in the playoffs. As a result, a goalie is often called upon to bail out his teammates when they are struggling to score.
But other times, a team's goalie has to go further than that just to allow his team to advance. Sometimes, a goalie has to steal a series.
The Capitals have not one, but two goalies who have stolen a series in their brief but memorable postseason careers.
Braden Holtby pulled the trick last year, during the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Boston Bruins. In the four Capitals victories, Holtby let in a total of six goals. This included three games in which he allowed only one goal each.
And none of the games were a cake walk either. Holtby faced a total of 158 shots for those four games, or an average of 39.5 shots per game. And he had zero margin for error: Each of those victories were decided by only one goal. In fact, all of the games in that series were decided by only one goal.
The previous spring, Michal Neuvirth accomplished the feat against the New York Rangers in the 2011 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Neuvirth surrendered only five goals in the four Washington wins while facing 113 shots. He allowed a single goal in two of the wins, and registered a shutout in a third.
Each of these two goalies may have to steal a series for the Washington Capitals to claim the 2013 Stanley Cup. On second thought, each goaltender may have to steal a pair of series to claim hockey's greatest prize.
The Stanley Cup playoffs is as much psychological warfare as it is physical warfare.
It is practically inevitable that the animosity between the Capitals and a given playoff opponent will quickly escalate and perhaps never subside during a series that will last a minimum of four games. So it is to the Capitals' advantage to harness this animosity and use it as a weapon against their opponent.
This Capitals team has successfully done so as recently as last season. During the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Boston Bruins, the Big Bad Black tried to bully the Caps from the start, as advertised. One curious target of most of the Bruins' negative attention was Nicklas Backstrom, who had just returned to the lineup after missing 40 games with a concussion.
It all came to a head at the end of Game 3. Backstrom was attempting to defend Alex Ovechkin, who had just been knocked to the ice by Boston Bruins forward Rich Peverley as the final whistle blew. When Backstrom approached, Peverley raised his stick towards Backstrom's head, and Backstrom responded with a vicious cross check to Peverley's face, receiving a match penalty and an automatic one-game suspension.
The Capitals cried foul. Head coach Dale Hunter fired the most damaging salvo (via Katie Carrera of The Washington Post):
Every scrum, Nicky comes out with no helmet on, he gets blockered to the head by [Tim] Thomas the game before. He’s protecting his head. He just came off for 40 games. You have to protect your head...If you watch it, [Peverley’s] stick’s right in his eyes, and it’s a dangerous play on their part. He’s got to protect himself. You get a second concussion you’re out a long time...Nicky Backstrom’s not that kind of player. He doesn’t just cross-check somebody in the face; he’s not like that. Because the stick was there he protected himself...It’s a serious injury...It is crossing the line to grab his head all the time is not the right way to play.
Bruins head coach Claude Julien dismissed Hunter's comments. Even Bruins president Cam Neely soundly denied the accusation. To no avail.
The tone of the series changed for good after that. The Capitals won Game 4 without Backstrom, to knot the series at two. But Backstrom was not the only notable absence from Game 4: Gone were the Big Bad Bruins, the bullies from the first three games of the series. Gone too were the shoves, scrums and shenanigans present in the beginning of the series.
Case in point: During the first three games of the series, the Bruins took a total of six roughing penalties, a testament to their aggression; during the final four games, the Bruins took only three roughing penalties.
But the Bruins excel while paying a rough and rowdy style of hockey. So it should come as no surprise that after taking a 2-1 lead, the declawed Bruins went 1-3 the rest of the series, including two losses at home.
The Capitals won that memorable series because they won the psychological battle first, thus allowing them to win the physical battle. To win the Stanley Cup, the Capitals will have to succeed in this manner in each of the four series.
Winning the Stanley Cup can be a brutal journey.
If you watch the NHL Network as much as I do, you can recall countless videos of players holding up the Stanley Cup while wearing "playoff beards", while also wearing fresh cuts, scrapes and welts:
- 2012: Dustin Brown, Los Angeles Kings
- 2004: Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay Lightning
- 1989: Doug Gilmour, Calgary Flames
To achieve the success that these three players and their teams achieved along with countless others, each Capitals player will have to embrace the experience, and enjoy the ride. Especially the most painful parts.
Perhaps that means getting high-sticked by an opponent, bloodying your face yet at the same time giving your team a four-minute power play. Or maybe receiving a bone-jarring open-ice hit that knocks you out of the game, all while passing the puck to your teammate for the decisive goal. And last but not least, blocking a shot that sends you straight to the bench, only after you diffuse a genuine scoring chance for the other team to preserve a victory.
Yes, the NHL has a tradition of playoff beards. But the NHL has an even older tradition of playoff bumps, bruises and bloody noses. The Capitals must wear all with pride if they are to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup.