The Washington Capitals are one game away from a Conference Final for the first time since 1998. They are also three games away from losing a playoff series for the first time since – well most of the past eight seasons. The troubling stat is they often lose three in a row but rarely clinch series comfortably with games to spare.
However, this season is different. Gone are the days of worrying about who is between the pipes; gone are days of wondering who will step up to the plate if superstar Alex Ovechkin has a bad day at the office; gone are the days of a mediocre defense full of names that currently feature in the AHL or don’t feature at all; and gone are the days of a general manager who loved to hire characters with zero experience as NHL coaches. This season – all the puzzle pieces are falling into place –but there is a final piece of the puzzle. Momentum and focus. OK, two pieces.
The clock is ticking for Ovechkin. He turns 30 in September and wants a Stanley Cup while he’s in his prime. Winning the big prize is the only way to solidify a career that will land the Russian in the Hall of Fame and will see his jersey retired in Washington. The Capitals team that takes the ice Friday in Game 5 against the New York Rangers is the best Capitals team since the one and only time they reached the Stanley Cup Final (1998). Ovechkin has proven that he can win big games, score spectacular goals and drive his teammates to victory. The Capitals are no longer a one-man show though, they have Ovi and they have a whole lot more.
Best Goalie in the Playoffs
Braden Holtby is the best goalie in the playoffs. Through his 10 postseason games, Holtby has a 1.48 GAA and a save percentage of .950. Those are good stats, but it’s less about the numbers and more about the confidence with Holtby. He looks at ease in goal for the first time in his Washington Capitals career and credit must go to goalie coach Mitch Korn. There are fewer easy goals going in, and Holtby gives up fewer rebounds. Is Holtby the reason the Capitals have enjoyed a deep run in the playoffs so far? Yes – by a country mile. Or kilometer.
Everyone knows that Ovechkin is a big hitter. Anybody who gets the business end of his freight train frame still feels it the next morning. But this season, the Caps are a whole team of hard hitters – and that, along with Holtby – is why the Capitals are for real this season. Every player is part of a new Capitals infrastructure, instituted by coach Barry Trotz, which involves the tactic of wearing down the opposition. The Capitals wore down the Islanders in the first round, and they’re wearing down the Rangers in the current series.
A Coach in Tune with his Team
Trotz is the first Capitals coach in a long time who is 100 percent in sync with his players. Ovechkin has enjoyed an excellent regular season – one of his best. Holtby had his best season ever, by a long distance; forwards Eric Fehr, Marcus Johansson and Jay Beagle all had standout seasons, as did others. The defense is strong, disciplined, and less porous than years past. The common denominator in all of this? Trotz. He also instills confidence in his two star rookies Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky, and each have paid their coach back in kind with amazing performances in the postseason including the “Barracuda’s” two-goal tally in Game 4 and “Kuzy’s” mesmerizing game-winning goal against the Islanders in Game 7 of that series.
The Capitals are one game away from the Stanley Cup conference final. If they don’t win Friday, they’ll have another two chances – the first of which will be Sunday. Let’s face it though, they’ll want to dispatch the Rangers Friday and reserve Sunday for Mother’s Day activities. If they get past the President’s Trophy winning New York Rangers, they’ll likely face the Tampa Lightning in the Conference Final – a team that the Capitals owned when both outfits competed in the old Southeast Division.
Is this the year that the Capitals overcome past setbacks? Is this the year that they close things out and get the job done? Is this the year to believe in the Capitals? Maybe.