Less Pressure Will Equal Capitals Playoff Success

Pressure is defined as “the stress or urgency of matters demanding attention”  in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. Successful teams in the NHL are measured by how well they deal with pressure, especially in the playoffs. A sense of urgency and dealing with stress may seem so simple to accomplish from the outside looking in, particularly when taking a look at the Stanley Cup champions over the past five years.  Teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Los Angeles Kings have been able to use this pressure and elevate their games when it mattered the most.

The Chicago Blackhawks won their third Stanley Cup in five years in 2015. They can handle pressure. (Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)

The Washington Capitals are one of those teams who has succumbed to pressure and high expectations in the Alex Ovechkin era. After another disappointing loss in the playoffs, they lost a lot of key players who helped them win the Presidents’ Trophy over the past two years.

The roster will look different this year and it will feature a lot of young and new faces. As a result, there will be less pressure and not much will be expected from them this year as opposed to the last couple of years. In the past when there was less pressure on the Capitals to win a Cup, it turned into the best chances of them actually progressing to the third round.  The “Rock the Red” faithful should keep that in mind during the season.

New Playoffs Attitude for the Capitals

There is no doubt that the franchise could use some fresh faces in the lineup. It will bring a change in attitude with young and hungry players. Additionally, incorporating young players could also help the Caps gain speed. Speed was an area of weakness for them in the playoffs over the past couple years.

That lack of speed was exposed by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the playoffs both of those years. Also at times, they struggled with the speed that the young Toronto Maple Leafs had in the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. New faces will surely benefit the roster as a whole because the pressure of winning the Cup may have been too much to handle for previous players.

This does not necessarily mean that they needed an overhaul of the roster either. They still have a nucleus of quality players that can produce and have the playoff experience as well. The Pittsburgh Penguins used this formula win back-to-back Stanley Cups. In the past, they have played better as the underdog. With the changes to the roster, there is no doubt that not much will be expected from them. With a faster team and less pressure, they can be a very dangerous team if they make the playoffs.

Capitals Were Underdogs in 2012

When the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs started, the Caps entered as the seventh seed. Their opponent was (the defending Champion) Boston Bruins. The Bruins were the second seed in the conference and were overwhelming favorites in this series as they should have been. They were the champs and they had home ice advantage. In contrast to Washington, who had less pressure, was the seventh seed, and had a new coach and a rookie goalie.

Being the underdog in a series was something fairly new for them at that time in the Ovechkin era. Before then they were a team who were usually filled with promise and expectations, with a high scoring offense led by the great eight. This wasn’t the same type of team though. Ovechkin only tallied 38 goals and finished with 65 points that year. That would be his lowest of his career at the time entering the playoffs after a full season.

Alex Ovechkin Capitals less pressure
(Mark Goldman/Icon SMI)

Under Less Pressure Against Boston

Under Dale Hunter, the team was geared towards defense and shot blocking, which in return would better suit them for the playoffs. In the first round against Boston, they showed just how dangerous they could be with a little extra motivation.

Backed by the brilliance in net by Braden Holtby and the offensive prowess that Washington held, they were able to back the defending champs against the wall. They were able to go up 3-2 in the series before the Bruins were able to force a game seven back in Beantown. Game 7 was a tight-checking affair from the start and went to overtime tied at one. Joel Ward would score the winner to upset the second seed and send he and his teammates to the second round.

Joel Ward Capitals
Joel Ward scores game winning goal in game 7 to upset the Bruins. (Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE)

Under Less Pressure Against The Rangers

In the second round, the Capitals would face the number one seed in the Eastern Conference New York Rangers. Once again they were the underdog in the series but their performance against the Bruins gained them more respect. The first four games were see-saw battles resulting in a 2-2 series tie headed back to Madison Square Garden. The result of game 5 would be the turning point of the series.

Leading 2-1 with 21.3 seconds left, the hero from round one Joel Ward took a double-minor high-sticking penalty. What followed after was heart breaking for the Caps. They were 6.6 seconds away from taking 3-2 series lead when Brad Richards was able to tie the game to send the game into overtime.

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In overtime, the Rangers were able to score and win the game to take a 3-2 series lead. The Capitals would go on to win game 6 but would then lose in game 7. Things were going to be different had they won that game 5. They had already beaten the number two seed. They were going to have all of the momentum going back home for game 6.

The Capitals Were Also Underdogs in 2015

The 40th Aniversary season for the Washington Capitals was a rollercoaster ride  They didn’t clinch a playoff berth until April of that year and still had to clinch home ice later in the month. They would finish second in the Metropolitan Division and fourth in the Eastern Conference.

Their opponent would be the New York Islanders. This time led by Barry Trotz, they were the favorite going into the series. The Isles were tough and were able to force a game 7.  The red rockers were once again frustrated. As the favorite, it seemed as though their boys would once again disappoint under pressure. Fortunately, to the delight of the franchise and its fans, the Caps were able to win game 7 and move on to the second round.

Another Series Against the Rangers

There they would meet a familiar foe. The New York Rangers. The Rangers were not only the best team in the east but they were the Presidents Trophy winners. This meant that once again that Washington was going to be the underdog in the series to most. In that same role as they were in 2012. Under less pressure, they played some of their best hockey that they’ve ever played in the playoffs.

Joel Ward scores a late goal at the end of the third period in game one to give Washington a shocking series lead over the Rangers. (Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports)

The Capitals would see themselves with a commanding 3-1 series lead with a chance to close it out in game 5 and finally move on to the third. Sounds familiar? It should. Another game 5 in Madison Square Garden to propel the Ovechkin and crew to the third round.

The game was scoreless until Curtis Glencross scored a breakaway goal to give the Capitals the lead with 9:06 remaining in the game. The Caps were in control headed towards the one-minute mark. With 1:41 remaining Rangers forward Chris Kreider tied the game. It was happening all over again. The game would then go into overtime. Again. The Blueshirts scored and won in overtime. Again.

The pressure was on Washington to close the series out at home in a crucial game 6. They couldn’t handle it and lost. In game 7 the pressure shifted back to big apple. The underdogs would score the all-important first goal thanks to Alex Ovechkin. It was now up to them to protect this lead and hopefully score an insurance goal. That would not happen. New York would then score to tie the game on a power play. The game would once again go into overtime. Derek Stepan would score the winner for the Rangers to eliminate them.

Chris Summers
Derek Stepan eliminates the Capitals in Game 7. (Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports)

Now Is the Time for Success

Pressure has clearly been an issue for the Capitals to deal with in the past. There won’t be as much on them this year as stated before. With the pressure lifted they have arguably played some of their best hockey. With younger players and speed, look no further than the Pittsburgh Penguins. They have used this formula to win back-to-back Stanley Cups. Could this now mean success for them with not as much pressure? Could the third time be charm under these circumstances as well? I believe they have a great shot.