The most important two months in the history of the Washington Capitals begins tonight when the open the playoffs at home against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Caps came into existence in 1975 and have never won the Stanley Cup. They’ve only made the Finals once (1998) and were swept, so they’re still looking for their first victory in the championship series, much less the Cup itself. Washington comes into this year’s postseason as the decisive favorite to win it all.
It’s not just the lack of a Cup that tortures Washington fans, it’s that the team has gained a reputation for “choking like dogs”, as ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser, a D.C. resident, frequently puts it on Pardon The Interruption. The team’s best player, Alex Ovechkin, has three MVP awards and may win a fourth this year after a 50-goal season. He also the reputation of another Alex—Rodriguez that is, for postseason failure.
Back in February, I wrote that I believed Washington’s time had come and the primary reason was the work of goaltender Braden Holtby. The Stanley Cup playoffs are a goaltender’s game and even a team with the best offensive talent will need a few games—maybe even an entire series—where the goalie needs to turn himself inside and out to save the day. The play gets more physical, the penalties a little less frequent and defense wins.
Washington has never had a goalie like Holtby. He tied for seventh in the league in save percentage. Unlike a lot of his teammates, he’s got some playoff cred. As a wet-behind-the-ears rookie, he beat Boston’s great Tim Thomas in a seven-game thriller back in 2012. Washington’s worst playoff chokes were in the years immediately preceding that. Holtby is, relatively speaking, baggage-free.
The team defense surrounding the goaltender is also excellent. Head coach Barry Trotz, also not here for the worst collapses of 2010-11 has made the team tougher, both physically and mentally and they rank sixth in the NHL in preventing shots and goal.
Thus, we have a team that doesn’t allow many good looks at the goal, has a solid goaltender for when they do, and has one of the great offensive players in the game’s recent history.
But this isn’t the NBA, and top seeds lose in the NHL playoffs, including early. The Flyers are a young team coming together at the right time that’s playing good defense themselves. I fully expect this to be a tough series that will go at least six games.
The structure of the Stanley Cup playoffs—division-based, rather than conference-based, sets up a possible titanic war between the Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. These are the best two teams in the East and over the years, the Pens are as responsible as any team for Washington’s spring heartbreak.
If we peek further around the corner, teams like Tampa Bay—the Eastern Conference champ last year, an elite goalie in Ben Bishop and great offensive talent led by Steven Stamkos await. The Finals themselves could be championship-proven teams like Chicago or Los Angeles. Or St. Louis, with the league’s best goalie this season, Brian Elliot.
There’s never time to breathe or relax when you root for a team in the NHL playoffs. Washington Capitals fans are about to embark on what they hope will be the ride of their life. I’m rooting for them to do it. I’m predicting them to do it. But I wouldn’t count on too many restful nights along the way.