The Washington Capitals might be having a dominant regular season, but given their troubled history in the postseason no one really cares. The Caps are 35-8-4, running away with the Metropolitan Division, the Eastern Conference and in the lead in the race for the President’s Cup, given to the regular season’s best team. But the Capitals have become to the NHL what the Cincinnati Bengals are in the NFL. None of this really matters—the question is whether or not they can win in the playoffs.
Washington has never won the Stanley Cup in their 41-year history and only made the Finals once, back in 1998 when they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings. That’s only part of the problem—in the era of Alex Ovechkin, easily the team’s best player, the Capitals have suffered some infamous playoff burnouts.
They lost as a high seed each year from 2009-11. Last year, even though they won a Game 7 against the New York Islanders and had the heavily favored New York Rangers in a 3-1 series hole, Washington still managed to see their history turned against them. They gave up the game-tying goal to the Rangers in the final minutes of Game 5 and lost the series in an overtime Game 7. Even when the Caps overachieve, it still seems to bite them in the rear.
But this year has a very real chance of different and not because of the sheer dominance taking place in the regular season. The reason to like this year’s Washington team to advance deep in the playoffs—and possibly win it all—is the play of goaltender Braden Holtby.
Holtby came onto the scene in 2012 very late in the regular season. With Washington’s regular goalies injured, Holtby responded by outdueling Boston’s great Tim Thomas in a tough seven-game series and got the Capitals out of the first round. Holtby got the regular job and has steadily grown into a reliable starter over the past three seasons. This year has been a breakout.
His save percentage is 92.9%, in the league’s elite. His goals-against-average is 2.07, also in the league elite. This success is in conjunction with a defense that’s tightened up, ranking third in the league in shots allowed. Holtby is a serious contender for the Vezina Trophy, the goaltender’s equivalent of the Cy Young Award and the team as a whole plays the kind of hockey that wins playoff games.
Washington didn’t lose in year’s past because of some magical curse. They lost because they were built to win in the regular season. Offensive flash can succeed over the course of the season, when intensity isn’t maxed out on a nightly basis. The flow of play can be much smoother and the ability of a player like Ovechkin to dominate is enough to win.
That’s not the case in the playoffs. The intensity is dialed up, the hitting and the grinding is tougher and fortune favors the teams who have gotten accustomed to playing tough defense and have the kind of goalies that can win a series by themselves.
The Washington Capitals finally have the kind of team that can win four consecutive playoff series and hoist the Stanley Cup. It’s a goaltender’s game in the playoffs and the Capitals finally have one of the best in Braden Holtby.