It’s that time of year again. The Stanley Cup playoffs are upon us.
With the hard-hitting, the late-game drama and unpredictability relative to its counterparts in other leagues, some say the Stanley Cup playoffs is the most exciting playoff tournament in North America.
But to Washington Capitals fans, the “unpredictability” of the playoffs is the very aspect they dread.
Since their return to the playoffs in 2008 in Bruce Boudreau’s first season as coach, the Capitals and their fans have known nothing but playoff disappointment. Despite earning seeds of 3, 2, and 1 in 2008, 2009, and 2010, respectively, the Caps have only advanced from the first round once, in 2009. That series, just like the other three, went seven games.
And it was that series where the Caps faced the New York Rangers, who will once again oppose the Capitals as the 8-seed in the playoff series starting tonight.
For many Caps fans, this was the matchup that they feared the most. The makeup of this Rangers team resembles everything that has led to playoff failure year after year. Stout defensive play. World-class goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist. Takes few penalties.
These were the factors that have done the Capitals in last year against the Montreal Canadiens last year, facing a goalie in Jaroslav Halak who, after being pulled from Game 3, suddenly caught fire. He held the high-powered offense of the Caps to just one goal per game in the last three games of the series, all of which were won by Montreal.
And during a season in which the Caps had seemingly struggled offensively for a good chunk of the year, a matchup with a team like the Rangers would certainly have Caps fans worried, especially after the Rangers won 6 out of a possible 8 points from the Capitals in the regular season, including thrashings of 7-0 and 6-0.
After all, this city hasn’t but dealt with constant disappointment in recent years, from the fallout between Redskins’ quarterback Donovan McNabb and Mike Shanahan, to the end of the Gilbert Arenas era for the Wizards, to the perennial cellar-dwelling of the Nationals, only compounded by the loss of Stephen Strasburg for most, if not all, of the 2011 season. It has become Pavlovian for D.C. sports fans to expect the worst, even when it comes to the city’s best major pro sports team today.
But despite the struggles in scoring, the eight-game losing streak (which included the 7-0 beating), career-low in points from Alex Ovechkin, and calls from fans for Boudreau’s job during the rough times, the Caps were convinced that this season would be different, and for the better come playoff time. The team had focused on strengthening the blue line depth, as well as an overall emphasis on defense. Out went Tomas Fleischmann and David Steckel. In came Scott Hannan and Dennis Wideman as reinforcements to injury-riddled Mike Green and Tom Poti, and the emergence of brightly-shining youngsters Karl Alzner and John Carlson. The addition of Jason Arnott provided the team with more depth at the center position, as well as valuable playoff experience. As these moves were made during the season, it was clear that this team was definitely being built to win in the playoffs, regardless of the bumps in the road along the way.
According to GM George McPhee, focusing on better defensive play had been in the works since last season’s early playoff exit. Says McPhee:
“Playing better defensively was something that we had addressed at the end of last season. We continued to talk about it, and wondered if it was time to make that shift but we had been successful playing the way we were playing. But when we got into that losing streak, we thought then that it was time to try this. It’s a dangerous thing to do, because players get confused when you change systems. Sometimes they’ll lose faith in the coaching staff. It doesn’t work very often, but our coaching staff did a terrific job of making it work. We’re a better team today as a result. I’m glad they pulled it off, because it’s making us a more formidable club.”
And this has certainly showed. The team that had constantly finished in the bottom half of the league in goals allowed and penalty kill percent in the previous three years has finished 4th and 2nd in those respective categories. By the end of the 7-0 defeat, the Caps had surrendered 91 goals in its first 32 games, nearly three goals per game. In the 50 games afterward, they allowed just 101 goals, good for roughly two goals per game.
Yes, the Caps are facing Lundqvist again. Yes, the Rangers have tended to be the Caps’ kryptonite in recent years. No, the team isn’t scoring goals at the rate they had been in past years.
But after the trials and adversity the team faced, there is good reason for fans to feel more optimistic heading into this year’s playoffs. Déjà vu? Not likely this year.
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