Alex Ovechkin, Capitals Clinch Postseason Berth; Latest 2021 NHL Playoff Picture

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistApril 30, 2021

Washington Capitals' T.J. Oshie (77) celebrates his goal with teammates Nicklas Backstrom (19) and Alex Ovechkin (8) during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Boston Bruins, Sunday, April 11, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Though they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night, the Washington Capitals still managed to clinch a playoff berth for the seventh straight season. 

All they needed was one point against the Penguins, which they earned since the game went to overtime, and a little help from the New York Islanders, who defeated the New York Rangers


The @Capitals #StanleyCup Playoffs status: CLINCHED ✔ https://t.co/6WbsG5QjFp

Alex Ovechkin got to lift his first Stanley Cup in 2018, a long-sought-after achievement following years of postseason heartbreak. Since then, the Capitals have bowed out in the first round in two straight years. They lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games in 2019 and then got dumped out by the New York Islanders in five games in 2020.

Following the latter exit, the Washington Post's Samantha Pell wrote it was "potentially the end of an era." Braden Holtby was a free agent and signed a two-year, $8.6 million deal with the Vancouver Canucks. Ovechkin turned 35 in September and is due to become a free agent.

The franchise seemed to acknowledge the ticking clock it faces by almost immediately firing Todd Reirden after their Game 5 loss to the Islanders. The Caps couldn't afford to be stagnant for another season and brought in Peter Laviolette to shake things up.

Here's a look at what they have to counter with as it stands now: 

Central Division

*Carolina Panthers: 73 points (33-10-7)

*Tampa Bay Lightning: 70 points (34-14-2)

*Florida Panthers: 69 points (32-14-5)

Nashville Predators: 56 points (27-22-2)

West Division

*Vegas Golden Knights: 72 points (35-11-2)

*Colorado Avalanche: 66 points (31-12-4)

*Minnesota Wild: 65 points (31-14-3)

St. Louis Blues: 50 points (22-19-6)

East Division

*Washington Capitals: 69 points (32-13-5)

*Pittsburgh Penguins: 69 points (33-15-3) 

New York Islanders: 65 points (30-15-5)

Boston Bruins: 64 points (29-14-6)

North Division

*Toronto Maple Leafs: 67 points (31-13-5)

Edmonton Oilers: 60 points (29-16-2)

Winnipeg Jets: 57 points (27-19-3)

Montreal Canadiens: 51 points (21-18-9)

Standings via NHL.com.

* = already clinched playoff spot

Ovechkin (24 goals, 18 assists), Nicklas Backstrom (14 goals, 37 assists) and John Carlson (10 goals, 32 assists) have spearheaded one of the NHL's most potent attacks. The Capitals' 3.43 goals per game rank second.

Washington's hopes of capturing a second championship will likely hinge on how Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov perform between the pipes, though. The team is 14th in goals allowed (2.90 per game). In addition, neither Vanecek nor Samsonov has appeared in a single postseason game.

Here's where the last 10 Stanley Cup champions finished in goals allowed:

  • 2011 Boston Bruins: 2nd (2.30)
  • 2012 Los Angeles Kings: 2nd (2.07)
  • 2013 Chicago Blackhawks: 1st (2.02)
  • 2014 Los Angeles Kings: 1st (2.05)
  • 2015 Chicago Blackhawks: 2nd (2.27)
  • 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins: 6th (2.43)
  • 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins: 17th (2.79)
  • 2018 Washington Capitals: 16th (2.90)
  • 2019 St. Louis Blues: T5th (2.68)
  • 2020 Tampa Bay Lightning: 8th (2.77)

An elite defense isn't a prerequisite for winning it all—the 2017-18 Capitals were a perfect example—but it's undoubtedly tough to be the last team standing without one.

Perhaps Vanecek or Samsonov will thrive on the big stage, and inexperience can be beneficial in a way because the player isn't carrying the weight of past disappointments.

Because of their triumph three years ago, the pressure for the Caps to win isn't quite so acute. But any outcome in which the team doesn't at least advance a few rounds will likely be considered falling short of expectations.