The Washington Capitals entered the postseason on a high note, earning their second straight Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular season team with 118 points and the best Goals Against Average in the sport at 2.2 per game.
Unlike last season, though, they got some pushback from the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins before pulling away down the stretch.
As always, the Capitals fan base is bullish on the team’s prospects. The fans have been through this gauntlet before: a great regular season, heightened expectations and then the eventual fall from grace. That fall usually comes at the hands of the hated New York Rangers, or worse, the Penguins, who seem to be better equipped to play the “grind-’em-out” style of playoff hockey better than the Caps. That’s not an indictment of the team’s roster—sometimes it seems that other teams just do things better.
But this year may finally be the year that things will be different in Washington. Vegas odds have the Capitals as a 3-1 favorite to bring Lord Stanley’s Cup home to D.C. For that to take place, they must beat out the upstart Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs. So far, they’re off to a good start after edging out Toronto, 3-2, in overtime of Game One.
The Leafs are a young and very exciting team, eerily reminiscent of the early “Rock the Red” Capitals teams of Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Alexander Semin and others. Those Caps teams were high-flying and put up lots of points, but did not have enough to compete in the playoffs against veteran squads. Toronto is led by 2016 first-overall draft pick Austin Matthews, whose 40-goal season makes him a lock to claim the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year.
But this is all about Washington, and whether they can finally do some serious damage in the playoffs. Fan apathy is at an all-time high, and rightly so. This is the Caps’ second Presidents’ Trophy in as many years, and third in the past decade. During that 10-year span, they’ve won seven division titles and finished atop the Eastern Conference four times, an amazing stretch of regular season dominance that any franchise would envy.
Yet, this franchise has only ventured past the second round of the playoffs twice, once in 1990 versus Boston, and in 1998 when they faced the Detroit Red Wings in the only Stanley Cup Finals appearance in franchise history. The Caps were swept in both series.
It’s never a slam dunk to win a Stanley Cup after winning the Presidents’ Trophy—only 27 percent of teams since 1990 have accomplished that feat. But for the Caps, anything less than at least a trip to the Finals would be a colossal failure for the franchise. It would conjure up all of the previous team inadequacies that brought about soul-crushing defeats.
The pressure is on the Capitals to thrive this postseason. Pipes do indeed burst, but will it happen again to the good guys? We all have to stay tuned.