After another banner regular season that ended with playoff disappointment in 2015, the Washington Capitals embark on another season, looking to finally take their regular season success and translate it into a Stanley Cup championship.
Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (70) keeps his eyes on the puck with New York Islanders left wing Nikolay Kulemin (86), from Russia, and Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen (2) nearby during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, in Washington. The Capitals won 2-1. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
The Caps had one of the most dominant regular seasons in NHL history, during which they won the Presidents’ Trophy for the second time in team history by an 11-point margin over the Western Conference leaders, the Dallas Stars. Washington finished 16 points ahead of the second-place Pittsburgh Penguins in the Metropolitan Division. Sadly for the Capitals and its fans, a familiar playoff scenario played out when they were knocked off by the Pens, the eventual Stanley Cup champions, in six games in a second round series where the Pens were just flat out more physical and faster than the Caps.
Regardless of what the records indicated, the Pens were the best team in the NHL from January on through the playoffs, so the Caps can take some solace that they didn’t lose to an inferior team. Yet the big question is WHY isn’t this team better when it matters most? At this point, fans and media pundits alike are bullish on expecting anything more than regular season success from the Caps and that’s only because of their own performances over time.
Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8), of Russia, moves the puck downice while pressured by New York Islanders center Ryan Strome (18) during the third period of an NHL preseason hockey game, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)
How long will the duo of Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom be enough to keep this team together and motivated to compete through the grueling 82 game season? Ovechkin reached the 500th goal plateau last season becoming the 43rd player in NHL history to achieve the lofty milestone. Does his body finally start to break down after years and years of physical play? Will the younger, talented trio of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson take the “leap” and become not just up-and-coming players, but players who can be counted on when it matters in the playoffs?
Will star goalie Braden Holtby be able to come anywhere close to everyone’s lofty expectations after his legendary season? Holtby had 48 wins for the season in only 66 starts (four of which came via shootouts) tying him with Martin Brodeur for the most wins in a single season record as he won the Vezina Trophy, which is awarded to the league’s best goaltender. It would be hard pressed to expect the same sort of performance again, but being somewhere near that level will give the Caps exactly what they need at the goalie position, which is probably the biggest strength of the total roster beyond the play of Ovechkin and Backstrom.
This team will have no problem making the playoffs by sheer talent alone, let alone clinching the Metro division. However, when it comes to the playoffs, everything seems to collapse in heartbreaking fashion. The constant playoff failures are frustrating and disappointing at the same time. Though the explanations for the losses go from lack of talent after the top-six on offense to simple playoff adversity, there should be no more excuses.
It is time to break the stigma—the stigma of D.C. sports.
The Capitals’ lack of postseason success is all psychological. There is something stopping them from advancing or excelling, and everything collapses. This team can win – they prove it each game they step on the ice. Their roster is now fully equipped, with depth all the way down to the bottom lines and pairings. Now, the last thing to do is to stay mentally positive and focused, that will help them win when the playoffs come around.
Overall, the team hasn’t changed much, and neither have the expectations for the regular season. The Capitals will succeed and win, as they do best, and can break a record or two in the meantime. But once April rolls around, the Capitals must overcome the doubts and push themselves forward without playing as if the proverbial knife is already in their backs.
Just like the Washington Nationals, this team isn’t a one-year wonder; it’s built to compete and last so they will have more opportunities for playoff success. It is up to the players and coaches to push themselves forward and, who knows, maybe this is the year…. Why not?