Hey all, how ya been? It’s been a minute… I know, I know that’s all on me – I’ve just been so busy these days and before you know it, several months have passed!
Anyways, my men’s league team is getting ready for our playoffs, and incidentally the NHL regular season is winding down and the Stanley Cup playoffs are fast approaching (how’s that for a clever segue 😉 The Capitals have maintained their sizable gap on the rest of the Eastern Conference and with a win the other day vs Columbus, they’ve officially locked up the President’s Trophy as the best regular season team.
This would be the second time in the organization’s history that they’ve won the President’s Trophy, the first being back in 2009-10 under Bruce Boudreau. Unfortunately, that season was also marred by a first-round exit in the playoffs (albeit in 7 games) after suffering an upset defeat at the hands of the 8th-seeded Montreal Canadians and in particular, a red-hot Jaroslav Halak.
Caps fans have long been tormented by playoff failures of the past. Despite a wealth of talent the team has had (and yes, props to former GM George McPhee as well as Ross Mahoney and the rest of the scouting department) during the new millenium, there has always seemed to be something missing and this resulted in a lack of substantial success during the playoffs.
The 2009-10 squad was an offensive juggernaut in the regular season that seemingly set scoring records all over the place. But once the playoffs started, the flash and dash style was stymied by the tighter checking, and let’s not completely ignore the fact that referees ABSOLUTELY do have the tendency to swallow their whistles and let the players play. This is not a complaint or cop-out, it’s just a reality of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and teams have to be able to adjust if they want to achieve sustained success. That Caps team were clearly not tough enough and couldn’t withstand the consistent physical play imposed by the Habs, resulting in their early elimination.
Personally, even the 1999 Caps team that made the Stanley Cup Finals didn’t have that undetermined “IT” factor that is the hallmark of a champion. Despite the fact that they reached the Finals for the first and still-only time in team history, I never really thought they had a chance. The Red Wings team that they faced had guys like Steve Yzerman, Nick Lidstrom (IMO the greatest defenseman of all time), Brendan Shanahan (the prototypical power forward of that era), Slava Kozlov, Sergei Fedorov, etc and a host of other character players that filled their roles perfectly.
On the other hand, the Caps fielded a lineup of Peter Bondra, Adam Oates, … and that’s pretty much it. Not to insult their other players (of whom I was a huge fan) but they just didn’t have the same level of talent: Michal Pivonka, Joe Juneau, Richard Zednik, Calle Johannson, etc. Players I loved, but weren’t exactly the brightest of stars. Despite their playoff success, in that series vs Detroit, it just felt like the Caps were pretenders, not real contenders. Sad as it was, I wasn’t really all that shocked when they were swept in 4 games. I mean, for God’s sakes we were relying on Esa Tikkanen to provide some scoring punch!
So fast forward to today. Does Caps Nation have any reason to believe that this year is any different? I say yes.
Unlike some other years, this year’s team can roll line after line at you and the style of play, one of puck possession, is conducive to playoff success in today’s game. Of course they always have the threat of Ovechkin, but along with the criminally underrated Nicklas Backstrom, they have strong offensive contributors in the form of TJ Oshie, Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, not to mention their top scorer and top-5 in the league, Evgeny Kuznetsov. I actually do think he’s their best offensive player and he’s just scratching the surface of his talent. I still don’t think fans in general realize how good he is and will become in the near future. If he progresses the way he has in his two short seasons in the NHL, he is destined for superstardom.
Along with steady if not unspectacular defensive play (Orlov aside), the X-Factor is Braden Holtby. He’s basically a cinch for the Vezina, and has a track record or performing well in the playoffs. That’s a workhorse that I’d gladly take into battle for the Cup…