The Washington Capitals, who saw their playoff streak of seven consecutive playoff appearances, end at the end of the 2013-14 season. Many pundits believed that the Caps would struggle in the new Metropolitan Division versus the dominance they held in the old Southeastern Division where there was seldom competition from the rest of their division rivals as the Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning, the Atlanta Thrashers (now the Winnipeg Jets) and Florida Panthers have seen their respective organizations struggle during that period save for the recent resurgence of the Lightning.
The Capitals have qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs, once again and while that’s somewhat comforting to their loyal followers, given their history of playoff disappointment, it will be their playoff performance that will be where ‘the rubber meets the road’ that will only please fans in the United States Capital city.
Through their dominance of the Southeastern Division and pursuit of Stanley Cup success, there were many differing personnel, style and coaching changes. But, no matter the change, the results remained the same: promising regular season success, followed by usually-immediate failure.
But there appears to be light through the disappointments of the past, the Washington Capitals have seemed to have found a direction, one that appears to be working and one that could finally lead to Stanley Cup playoff success.
But, in order to break through the impenetrable barrier that has eluded them so often in the past, there are specific key aspects that the Capitals must capitalize upon:
A Commitment to Defense – in the past, the Caps were among the NHL’s leaders in goals scored; however, their goals allowed during the regular season and specifically in the playoffs were ranked in the bottom third of the NHL. The Stanley Cup playoffs are all about defense and, when an opponent can shut down the Caps usually-prolific offense, having a suspect defense puts a great deal of pressure on the defense as well as the offense to score.
Goaltending – this goes hand in hand with a commitment to defense-first play. This season, the Capitals have been in the top third of NHL statistics of shots allowed. Historically, they’ve been in the bottom third or lower half of this category. Thus, while the Save Percentage (Save%) has been consistently similar, allowing far fewer shots on goal and scoring chances, much like perennial stalwarts like the Detroit Red Wings and St. Louis Blues under Ken Hitchcock’s similar defense-first system, puts far less pressure on the goaltender, particularly a rising young goaltending star like Braden Holtby and especially under the tutelage of net-minding guru Mitch Korn.
Coaching – in the past, the Capitals have tried coaches with little to no Stanley Cup playoff experience: Adam Oates, Dale Hunter, Bruce Boudreau, the list goes on. In Barry Trotz, they have a head coach who, while never having led a team deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs, has proven that, even with a salary cap-strapped team as the Nashville Predators often were, he has won playoff series with the limited firepower that most Stanley Cup contenders usually have. Thus, now armed with an experienced playoff coach and, with a much more talented squad, the Capitals now have someone who has been in Stanley Cup playoff battles and it should translate into greater success.
Urgency – Although Alexander Ovechkin, the NHL’s premier sniper and Niklas Backstrom, one of the NHL’s top playmakers and offensive pivots, continue to produce, offensively are entering the prime of their careers, at 29 and 27, respectively, their ‘window of opportunity’ is beginning to become a factor. And, there is an element of pride, particularly with elite players like both of them are so they know they need to seize on every opportunity that comes their way.
For the Capitals, the talent is there, the methodology is there, all of the necessary variables exist for playoff success. What’s remaining for them is the execution and will to get to the next and the ultimate level, Stanley Cup success and hopefully glory.