The NHL regular season ended Saturday, with the Washington Capitals clinching the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. They will take on the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the first round.
While taking out the defending champs won’t be easy, the Caps have the talent to do it.
In recent years, Washington has made the playoffs with the expectation of hoisting the Cup, or at least a Finals appearance. But in reality, the team has been unable to escape the second round. Another playoff disappointment this year will most likely result in the firing of General Manager George McPhee, Coach Dale Hunter and the departure of star left winger Alexander Semin, among many others.
However, maybe this year can be different. Maybe the team has learned from past mistakes. Maybe, instead of being the league’s biggest disappointment, they can surprise hockey fans when most expect them to fail.
The past few years, the Caps have coasted into the playoffs, playing meaningless games in terms of playoff implications for the last month of the season.
It’s possible that Washington was eliminated because of the lack of meaningful games late. Once a team loses intensity, it’s not easy to get it back.
This season, that will not be an issue. Two weeks ago, it didn’t look like the Caps had a chance to make the postseason. A March 23 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets, in which the Capitals blew a 3-0 lead, had many writing the team off.
However, Washington stepped up when its players’ backs were up against the wall, winning five of the last seven games to make the playoffs.
As we’ve seen numerous times over the years, it’s usually not the best teams that win the championship, but the hottest. Does anyone believe that the St. Louis Cardinals, New York Giants and Dallas Mavericks were the best teams in their sports last year?
This year, instead of being the favorite, the Caps can be that team no one believes has a shot, only to come out of nowhere and win it all.
It’s not all about being hot, though. It’s also about experience. In order to finish with one of the best records in the NHL year after year, the Capitals have had to expend a lot of energy early in the regular season.
Perhaps they have learned this is not the best route to go in order to achieve the ultimate goal of playing into June. Instead of spending their energy in December, they’ve decided to save it for the spring.
However, maybe the biggest reason this Stanley Cup Playoffs will be different is because, unlike other years, this team is an underdog. After so many years of postseason disappointments, a lot of people have given up on them.
As we’ve heard so many times from coaches and players alike, it’s much easier to be an underdog than it is to deal with high expectations. It not only takes the pressure off, but also gives players extra motivation to prove their doubters wrong.
Star Caps players have completely disappeared at times during the playoffs. Alex Ovechkin, Semin, Mike Green and others have come up short at points over the last few postseason series. It’s possible that they were just going through slumps. But one has to think the pressure of being the Stanley Cup favorite didn’t help.
It was a disappointing regular season in Washington. A coach was fired, and his replacement wasn’t much better. But this could be a role reversal. Maybe this year, a disappointing regular season will lead to amazing play come playoff time.