The Washington Capitals organization has been a pillar of consistency over the last decade, qualifying for the postseason an impressive 10 times in 11 seasons, but then always falling short of lofty expectations.
In fact, despite the lengthy streak of playoff berths, Washington had failed to even reach the conference finals in 20 straight campaigns leading up to last week.
It had become the norm for Presidents’ Trophies, 120-plus-point regular seasons, and Stanley Cup aspirations to be dashed at the hands of Eastern Conference teams the Capitals were supposed to dust aside with relative ease.
Well, it might have taken longer than D.C. hockey fans would have liked, and parade plans might be premature, but Washington – which has won 10 of its last 12 games and holds a 2-0 series lead over Tampa Bay in the conference finals – now finds itself within striking distance of the franchise’s second Stanley Cup Final in its 44-year history.
The surprising postseason run has been a symphony of solo performances and complete group efforts that has finally started earning Washington the respect of opposing teams and fans alike. Here’s how:
The mark of any championship-caliber club is its ability to win on the road. So, what’s the Capitals’ record away from home in the 2018 playoffs? Try a sparkling 7-1, as they’ve already matched their franchise record for road wins in a single postseason.
And take a look at the numbers from Washington’s opponents during those seven victories away from Capitol One Arena – let’s just say the Caps haven’t been an easy team to play against:
|Blue Jackets||Round 1 (3)||4||0||2||3-2 Caps OTW|
|Blue Jackets||Round 1 (4)||3||0||1||4-1 Caps W|
|Blue Jackets||Round 1 (6)||4||0||3||6-3 Caps W|
|Penguins||Round 2 (3)||4||1||3||4-3 Caps W|
|Penguins||Round 2 (6)||1||0||1||2-1 Caps OTW|
|Lightning||Round 3 (1)||3||1||2||4-2 Caps W|
|Lightning||Round 3 (2)||4||2||2||6-2 Caps W|
One key factor is that Washington has killed penalties at nearly an 83 percent clip in the road victories, extinguishing 19 of 23 power-play chances for its opponents.
Another has been the Capitals’ ability to cancel out home-ice advantage by scoring the first goal in all seven road wins, taking the opposing crowd out of the game from the jump.
(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
While the PK has been stingy, the Capitals’ PP has been filling the back of the net more than any other unit this postseason, registering a league-high 16 goals on 49 chances for a impressive 32.7 percent conversion rate.
Leading that charge has been T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin, and John Carlson – a group that head coach Barry Trotz has deployed 60 percent of the time over the past 10 games. And lately, Lars Eller has slotted in admirably for Backstrom – who’s missed the last three games with an upper-body injury – but his time for recognition is coming shortly.
Making opponents pay on special teams has certainly been a crucial aspect of Washington’s overall offensive output during the first three rounds.
Bottom-six forwards stepping up
Backstrom’s injury opened the door for Eller, but the rest of Washington’s bottom six has done its part, too. Guys like Devante Smith-Pelly, Jay Beagle, and Chandler Stephenson have been sensational despite playing limited minutes.
In addition to eating up time on the PK and sacrificing their bodies with crucial shot blocks, Smith-Pelly, Beagle, and Stephenson have even chipped in with some clutch playmaking and scoring, combining for seven goals and seven assists through the first 14 playoff games.
As for Eller, he’s served as the second-line center since Backstrom’s injury during Game 5 against Pittsburgh last round, and hasn’t looked out of place. The 29-year-old Dane has two goals and two assists while averaging just under 20 minutes a night alongside Oshie and Jakub Vrana.
Eller is just the most recent example of a bottom-six forward stepping up for Washington, as that entire crew has been doing it since the end of April.
Ovi, Kuzy wreaking havoc
There could be an entire piece dedicated to this section, considering how insanely good Kuznetsov and Ovechkin have been since the playoffs began. But given the nature of this piece, let’s just shine a bit of light on the duo’s sensational offensive output over the 14 postseason games:
There’s no denying that Kuzy and Ovi have been on complete tears, but winger Tom Wilson has been the final piece rounding out Washington’s top line. And he’s played an important role, too, racking up three goals and six assists in 11 games.
Ovechkin and Kuznetsov – with the chippy Wilson adding an element of sandpaper – have been giving opposing blue-liners fits with their stellar puck possession and elite offensive skill sets.
It’s been a long time coming for Ovechkin, who’s been hearing for his entire career that he doesn’t have what it takes to get his team over the top. It’s probably safe to say that played-out narrative’s days in the sun are nearing an end.
Beastly blue line
Last, but certainty not least, the Capitals’ D-core has been instrumental in the club reaching this point.
The top-four group of Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, Michal Kempny, and John Carlson has been rock-solid while also contributing offensively. In fact, Carlson has already turned in the best offensive postseason from a defenseman in Capitals history.
Carlson’s point haul now sits at 14, while Washington’s defensemen have combined for six goals and 26 assists overall.
Beyond the scoring, this group’s play in its own end has been paramount to the Capitals’ success. Washington has limited opponents to 29.8 shots per game, the lowest of the remaining teams. And despite not boasting a bona fide star on the back end, the defense has bent, but not broken.
Undoubtedly, anything can happen over the next few games, and the Lightning are far from out of it. But it’s tough to bet against Ovechkin and his gang of underappreciated men as they continue to command respect and prove their place as contenders in a postseason where most expected them to remain pretenders.