If the Washington Capitals are going to exercise almost 3 decades of playoff demons, it will start vs the hated Philadelphia Flyers this week in Washington. The Caps have had a great season, securing the President’s Trophy for the best record in the NHL, earlier than any team since 2002. This was the second occasion the Caps have won the trophy with the first being in the 2009-10 season. That season ended in usual heartbreak, losing to the Montreal Canadians 4 games to 3 after holding a 3-1 lead. That series turned because of Canadians goalie Jaraslov Halak, who in hockey terms “stood on his head” to single-handedly win the series seemingly on his own as the Caps succumbed to the pressure that happens to dominate, series favorites such as the Caps were.
“It’s good to have home-ice advantage through the playoffs, but at the same time, it doesn’t even mean anything because we lost last time in the first round when we won the Presidents’ Trophy,” Nicklas Backstrom said “For me, it’s just a matter of getting to the playoffs. The teams, one through eight, can beat anyone.”
Just like the 2009-10 season, the Caps are coming into the playoffs not playing their best hockey. Too many 3 goal deficits, late game collapses, lack of urgency has seem to plague the team. Maybe this is just a cynical view from a jaded fan, but one can’t help but envision another heartbreaking outcome if this pattern continues.
On March 30th, the Flyers defeated the Caps in Philly in a nip and tuck affair by the score of 2-1. It was the kind of game you would expect to see in the playoffs. They slammed each other into the boards, jabbed one another with their stick and, occasionally after the whistle blew, there were often a few more shoves for good measure. Everything we love about playoff hockey and Philly seemed to want it more and that was the discouraging thing.
This go around however, the team is a little more structured for the playoff gauntlet. Alex Ovechkin (who entered rarefied air becoming the 3rd player in history to have more than seven 50-goal seasons with a hat trick in Game 81 vs St Louis) and the aforementioned Backstrom are more seasoned. Veterans Justin Williams, TJ Oshie and Mike Richards are playoff tested performers at the highest level which means all the pressure shouldn’t lay on the shoulders of Ovechkin. Goalie Braden Holtby has had one of the greatest individual seasons in NHL history, but unless he sharpens up and doesn’t continue with the late season moments of mental lapses with these easy goals, this team could very well lose early, again.
The Capitals have been the best team in the sport for most of this season. All the media pundits have penciled them in the Stanley Cup Finals already. Playoff focus can wilt the greatest of teams in the NHL playoffs. It will crush the souls of the best teams and their fans. Caps fans honestly don’t want to hear anything of that nature and want results. Another early playoff exit could crush an already apathetic fanbase.