There is so much that goes into playoff hockey that can’t be measured. Sure, there are points and rankings and a zillion other statistics that can help people predict outcomes. Normally those would lead you to an accurate outcome, but in the playoffs all bets are off. Intangibles become the main weapons in things like effort, luck, and perhaps most importantly, timing.
The Washington Capitals have come up on the sour end of that last one the last few years heading into the postseason. Three years ago, the Caps had to fight tooth and nail to make the playoffs. They won the division by winning their last game, earning them a playoff spot. They went on a stretch that saw them win 11 of their final 12 to even have that slim chance at a postseason berth.
After winning the first emotional game against the Flyers, the Caps went down 3-1 before coming back to lose in game 7. Game seven went to overtime, and whether or not the team was gassed was a point of discussion. The point was a valid one: after fighting so hard to make the playoffs, it’s hard to keep up that intensity during a series.
The following year, the Caps were stuck in a limbo. From about February on they remained second in the conference without much possibility for movement either way. Not having to fight to get into the second season, the Caps fell into a lull and had to come back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Rangers to win the first round. That was followed by a grueling seven-game series against the rival Penguins, and fatigue was again called into question after an embarrassing showing in game 7.
Last season, the Caps went on a tear from mid-January to mid-February, winning a franchise record 14 straight games. They then fell into a similar problem as the previous year and fell into a lull. It was predictable being that they were so far ahead of the rest of the league. While they said they would be able to turn it on again come playoff time, they fell to the 8th seeded Canadiens in seven games.
However, this year seems to be different. With just four weeks remaining in the regular season, the Caps are just now hitting their stride. They haven’t looked like last season’s team all year, but with a boost from acquisitions like Jason Arnott and Dennis Wideman, the Capitals are finally clicking. Tonight, they won 5-0 against the Edmonton Oilers, and did so with their trademark explosive third period.
Could this be a little too early to peak? Doubtful. Although the Caps likely won’t take a long winning streak into the postseason, they will take something much more valuable: confidence. A month is short enough not to burn out, but long enough to really develop good chemistry with the new acquisitions. Not only that, but it is still plenty of time to tweak things.
It is also short enough to keep the players motivated. They still have the division and conference to fight for, and setting those goals will help avoid a lull. They are just two points back from the Flyers for the conference lead, and only two points ahead of the Lightning for first in the division. Those are both close enough races to keep the Caps focused down the stretch.
Talk won’t mean anything for this team until they prove they can get it done in the playoffs. However, unlike in recent years, the Caps seem to finally have timing on their side heading into the most important part of the season. When the fate of your season can depend on things like hit posts, that can mean all the difference.