The Capitals were not exactly dominant in the playoffs last season, nor were they for much of the regular season in 2019-20, but this is a team loaded with big-game experience, one that has learned the key to playoff success just two years ago
With the world slowly returning to normal and the possibility that the NHL will be able to complete the season, it’s time to look at the teams that are favored to win the Stanley Cup. From now until the playoffs begin, I’ll highlight one team per week and make the case for it to win the Stanley Cup. This week: The Washington Capitals.
With the NHL declaring the regular season complete when it unveiled its return-to-play plan last week, you can officially make that 10 division titles in the past 13 years for the Washington Capitals. Yeah, a few of those were by default when they ruled the otherwise pathetic Southeast Division, but let’s give credit where credit is due here. Including this season’s slim victory, the Capitals have won five straight Metropolitan Division titles, home to some of the league’s heavy hitters. In that same time span, three different teams have won Atlantic and Central Division titles and four have captured the Pacific Division.
But there was something of a different feel to this season’s Metro title for the Capitals. They weren’t terribly dominant and when the calendar turned to 2020, they were downright ordinary. When play stopped March 12, the Capitals were just one point and seven percentage points ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers in points percentage. Nobody associated with the Capitals was particularly happy with the team’s play. And it seemed the longer Alex Ovechkin chased 400 goals, the worse the Capitals played.
“I don’t think we’ve been happy with the way we’ve played, probably since the end of December,” Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said in a videoconference last week. “In my mind, there was a slight uptick near the end, in the last few games, but overall there’s a sense of frustration and a sense of we should be playing a lot better than we were.”
It doesn’t take the second coming of Toe Blake to see where the Capitals are lacking. And here’s a hint: it’s not on offense. The Capitals have long been able to score with anyone in the league and this past season was no exception. It’s on the blueline and behind it where the Capitals were hurting most this season. They have a Norris Trophy contender and certain finalist in John Carlson, who, if he wins the trophy will do so on on the strength of his offensive season. Like his team, he actually wasn’t very good in his own end for the second half of the season. And beyond Carlson, the Capitals defense corps is neither deep nor terribly defensive, which is precisely why they traded for Brenden Dillon at the trade deadline. In goal, Braden Holtby was having the worst statistical season of his career and Ilya Samsonov was not able to play well enough to take over the net and prove he was the undisputed No. 1 man when he had the opportunity. (Of course, we all saw what happened the last time Holtby had a godawful regular season. All he did was go on to backstop them to the Stanley Cup.)
MacLellan wasn’t foolish enough to think that the Capitals problems would go away once the season was put on hold. “I think when we come back, we have issues that need to be addressed,” he said, “and were being addressed at the end.”
So why do the Capitals remain a legitimate Stanley Cup contender in 2020? Well, a break like this one should be advantageous for a veteran team that has seen it all when it comes to the playoffs. And the key here is experience. Although the pandemic has made it seem much longer ago, the Capitals are still only one season removed from winning the Stanley Cup. In that 2018 playoff, the Capitals were everything they were not in previous seasons – resilient and unaffected by adversity. They also defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins that year. Two years later, picking the Penguins to defeat the Capitals in a playoff series would no longer be a given. Probably the most compelling reason the Capitals can win this season is that all those years they lost, they were built for the regular season and not the playoffs. Perhaps the opposite is true now. Maybe, just maybe, the Capitals have finally learned to save their best for when the games mean the most.
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