Though it took a bit longer than many fans expected, the Washington Capitals are headed to the second round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Though advancing to the next round of the playoffs can be exciting, it always gets difficult at this point for Washington. The Capitals have not made it past the second round since 1998 when they paid a visit to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Detroit Red Wings and fell in seven games.
As they get ready to face off against the Pittsburgh Penguins again, the Capitals find themselves in a tough spot. Not only are they in pursuit of their first Cup in franchise history, with seemingly all the right pieces lining up, they also want to end the stigma — the belief that they cannot make it past the second round.
Nicklas Backstrom spoke to the press following Monday’s practice, and referred to the Capitals as the “underdog” going into this series, despite the fact the team won the President’s Trophy, the Metropolitan Division championship and the Eastern Conference championship.
Of course, Backstrom was referring to the fact that the Penguins are the defending Cup champions, but fans must consider the other side of the argument — Pittsburgh has had the best of Washington in all their past playoff series. And that is what has made them an underdog.
The connotation behind being the underdog isn’t the end of the world by any means. In fact, perhaps Washington needs to take a moment and play like an underdog team.
Washington is a great squad, without a doubt. They are well on their way to winning their first Cup and have a stacked roster and a lot of moving parts working well. However, if they keep the mentality that getting through this series should be easy for them, they will find themselves frustrated, and won’t play to their full potential.
Going in with an “underdog” mindset will show that this team knows where it sits, is aware of its struggles and is ready to face them head on. It may also push them to play a better, more driven game in the second round, which is exactly what the Capitals need.
More Than a Rivalry
The Penguins and Capitals have met twice in the playoffs over the last seven years, meeting in 2009 and 2016. Both times, Pittsburgh ended the series on top and moved on to win the Stanley Cup both times.
The series used to center around the Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby debate and which player performed better. Of course, both of them impressed with dueling hat-tricks and outstanding respective performances, but the series really focused on who was the better up-and-coming star. In 2016, the question came about the “rematch” between the teams, and how the rivalry would play out.
Both times these teams have played, the stigma has surrounded the rivalry between the squads. Nicklas Backstrom has the right idea in referring to Washington as the underdog because, though he may not know it, he is moving them away from focusing on the sole rivalry between the two teams.
No longer can this be about Crosby vs. Ovechkin or revenge and redemption. The press and media will focus the series on those aspects — the team cannot.
The Right Mentality
There seems to be a mentality surrounding the Capitals in the fact that they are playoff-oriented constantly. It was in a locker-room stall conversation with Braden Holtby where he told me the team has been focused on the playoffs since the start of the season. While that determination will help them succeed, Washington has to simply go out and play hockey without thinking of the pressure of the rivalry or rematch that comes with this series.
All of the thrills of the regular season are behind this team now. In the end, the team that hoists the Cup won’t be known for having the most wins in the regular season, let alone clinching their division title. The team that comes out victorious will be the team that played the best hockey come the postseason.
In their first round series, the Capitals did not play to the best of their ability or to their full effort at times. And, as seen from the series, it often landed them in trouble.
Against Toronto, the Capitals struggled, even though they completely dominated in the regular season and sat on top as the best team in the NHL. Five out of six of the games against the Maple Leafs went to overtime, and the Capitals, at times, appeared lazy against the young and dangerous team.
This will not work against Pittsburgh, a team that has so much experience and talent that they will win against a Capitals team that plays a laid-back style. Therefore, going in with the right mentality is a key for Washington.
Overall, the series will be a thrilling, hard-fought one, and the underdog Capitals may just advance if they look at things from a different perspective, and avoid playing like the playoff team we’ve come to know too well over the years.
Sammi Silber covers the Capitals beat for The Hockey Writers and is an NHL contributor with Sporting News. She has also contributed to USA TODAY College, Huffington Post, FanSided and the Nation Network. Silber has written four books and recently worked on graphics for the film, The California Golden Seals Movie.