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As The Dust Settles April 28, 2013

Posted by CapitalSpirit in Uncategorized.
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Who’da thunk it?

Take a look at the NHL standings as they existed on March 14th.

The Capitals were down in 14th. They were 5-5-0 in their last ten games, were on a 3-game regulation loss streak, were playing .500 hockey at home, and had only won 3 of the 11 games they’d played away from Verizon Center.

They were also a single point away from being tied for the worst record in the NHL at the time. The Caps stood 3 points behind Calgary and Colorado, who were tied for the worst record in the West at that point. All three of those teams–Washington, Colorado, and Calgary–had 25 games played at that point.

The three teams’ records since then? Colorado, 6-14-3; Calgary, 9-14-0; Washington, 17-4-2. The Caps went on a points pace just north of 78%, for just under HALF OF THE ENTIRE SEASON. That would be something like a 61-point pace in just under half of an 82-game season. That’s practically video-game good.

Have the Caps been letter-perfect for the second half? Not quite: there are still a few rough edges here and there which I hope are addressed over the coming few days’ practices. There were a few passes to nobody in particular Saturday night, a few spots where the Caps got bottled up in their own end, some scary chances against at period starts, and a few discipline bullets that Braden Holtby managed to dodge on behalf of the rest of the team. I’m sure there are many, many nits that could be picked with this team, but that’s not why I’m writing this.

The Washington Capitals have suddenly Gotten Good. Not perfect, no. Not unstoppable force, no. But they are a very, very good hockey team at just the right point in the season.

By way of comparison, the Rangers–so, we meet again, Mr. Bond!–were 13-10-2 on March 14th; they’ve been 13-8-2 since. So if you want to look at the macro trend, over the latter half of the season, the Capitals have been doing better than the Rangers over the past month and a half. And that despite the fact that the Rangers have been hanging around the cut line for most of the season, and have been above it much more than they’ve been below it. For the Blueshirts, it’s been more of a nail-biter than perhaps they would have liked, but I don’t think anyone was calling the Rangers a lost cause.

Washington? Yeah, not so much. Even as the trade deadline approached, the conventional wisdom was that there would have been no shame in calling this season a lost cause: brand new coach, new system, new players, injuries to key players, some guys having to re-adjust to the North American game after playing overseas…the list of crazy new stuff happening all at once was very, very long. If there was ever any one season the Washington Capitals could have been forgiven for chalking up to experience, this one would have been it.

Instead, what did they do? They clicked; they jelled; they went on one hell of a tear; and they’ll get to hang the very last Southeast Division championship banner next fall.

Oh…and they’ve also drawn the New York Rangers in the playoffs, again. Only this time, they have home ice advantage for the series. The Caps and Rangers have played several memorable series in recent years, but two stats jump out at me about the recent, Ovechkin-era history: the higher-seeded team has won every series; and–this is the REALLY weird stat–the series has been decided on the winning team’s ice. Look it up: the Caps won game 7 at home in 2009; won game 5 at home in 2011; and lost game 7 on the road last year. And while there’s absolutely no guarantee that any of that history will repeat itself, it is, I should think, an interesting stat at the very least.

A month and a half ago, I don’t think there were too many who thought the Capitals could even make the playoffs. And if there was anyone back in March who said “Caps will win the Southeast” with no irony whatsoever, I’d love to see the date stamp on it. Division champions? Back in March, that was a punch line, not a possibility.

And yet, here we are. Who’da thunk it?

What really got my attention in Saturday night’s game was how the Caps, who had absolutely nothing to play for (other than avoiding injuries, and perhaps putting on a good show for Fan Appreciation Day) came back from a 2-0 deficit at the 2nd intermission. As with the season generally, I doubt anyone would have complained had the Caps simply played to stay healthy. Guaranteed the 3 spot regardless of the outcome, there was no NEED for them to try for the win.

Let me repeat that for emphasis. The Capitals did not NEED to win Saturday night’s game. As far as playoff standing was concerned, they literally had nothing to gain if they won, and nothing to lose if they lost. There was no NEED to try to come back from a 2-0 hole at the second intermission.

The Capitals didn’t NEED to win. But they WANTED to win. And even though it would mean a lot more work than simply playing to stay healthy, the Caps still went out, contested the game, and ultimately won it–even though the result had absolutely no bearing on their playoff standing.

There have been Capitals teams in recent seasons who might very well have conceded Saturday night’s game as a throwaway. This year’s team did not do that.

And it is that attitude which I submit should have the rest of the league on notice. There have been Capitals teams in recent years that have coasted when given the chance, and which ultimately did not succeed. This team could have coasted on Saturday, and chose, as a team, not to do so.

So, work ethic? Check. Compete level? Check. (If these guys can come all the way back to win a game that’s meaningless, imagine what they’ll do now that the games matter a lot!) Power play? Check and check. (All 3 goals Saturday were scored on the man advantage.) Scoring? Check. (Ovechkin’s getting another Rocket Richard trophy, and Mike Green is back to his old scoring self.) Defense? Check. (And Jack Hillen and Steve Oleksy have been revelations, haven’t they?) Goalies? Check, check, check. (If Holtby keeps playing like this, Neuvirth may end up with the best seat in the house for a long playoff run. And somebody needs to get John Erskine some pads for all the goaltending he’s been doing lately.)

The Capitals are definitely not invincible. They still have a few things that need to be worked on before they welcome the Rangers to the Phone Booth. But of all the Capitals teams I’ve seen in recent years, I’m hard-pressed to pick a squad that looked better than this team looks right now. And that’s with Joel Ward and Brooks Laich in the press box!

There have been seasons in years past when it seemed like the Capitals were somehow lacking in the intangibles: perhaps the young guns didn’t quite have the experience, perhaps the chemistry on some of the forward lines wasn’t quite what it could have been, perhaps this, perhaps that, perhaps something else.

If you asked me to name the one thing that could doom the Capitals this postseason, I would have to think long and hard, and reluctantly point behind the bench. No disrespect to Coach Oates at all, but this is his first Stanley Cup Playoff as a head coach. True, first-time coaches can be successful–just ask the Pittsburgh Penguins–but in the long run, there’s no substitute for experience. John Tortorella has forgotten more Stanley Cup Playoff games than Adam Oates has ever been a head coach for. The first round, at the very least, is going to make for an extremely intriguing coaching matchup, but on paper, it’s hard to avoid giving Torts his due.

So, all that having been said…

Now that we all can look back and smile at it, I think we can say that this has been a regular season that we’re glad to have been here for. There have been a number of trying times, and the way we got here is not the way many expected we would. But we’re still standing, while 14 teams are already going home.

Who’da thunk it?

Now the season really starts: that second season played for keeps.

I’ll end with a question: will this finally be the one?

CAPITAL SPIRIT
AT BREAK OF DAY, UNTIL THE LIGHT FAILS, MARCH EVER ON

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