Each year at this time, I sit down and write a playoff prediction for the Capitals. Last year prior to the start of the Bruins series, I remember feeling the Bruins would beat the Caps in five games and then when Washington won in seven, I then thought the Caps could the heavily favored Rangers in seven-----well, at least i got the number of games correct.
My point to this is simple, it is not easy being a Capitals fan and no other season personified that sentiment more than this past lock out shortened year. That is the agony and ecstasy of being a Washington Capitals fan, you never what the hell to expect this time of the year. So as I sit here and get ready to breakdown the CAPS-RANGERS, I cannot help but think, is this year different?
Is this the year Washington makes the LA Kings did last season and wins the Stanley Cup? Can Alex Ovechkin finally deliver the long suffering Capitals fans their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, which has hit Jack Benny’s (39) age?
One thing is for sure, if the Capitals can do it, this would be the most unorthodox and unexpected run for a Capitals team that has--- at times dominated the league during the past six seasons and at times looked and played like a lottery team.
This season, the Capitals began the year 2-8-1 and were sitting dead last in the Eastern Conference. This wouldn’t be that big of deal if the season were 82-games but the NHL lockout didn’t end until January and that meant a 48-game slate.
They would have just seven days of training camp with a new head coach---- who, oh by the way happened to be their third head coach in just 17 months. This meant another new system with new players. In addition, the players that were left over did not exactly start the year on fire.
Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green would combine to register just 16-points during the first 10 games of the season but as the season wore on would become more comfortable in Adam Oates system.
The same three posted far better stats during the season’s final 10-games as they would combine to register 35-points. However, there were 28 –games in between and following a 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers, the same Rangers the Caps are ready to face in the playoffs, Washington fell to 10-13-1 and was just three points out of last place in the Eastern Conference.
One sports stat web site, which calculates a team’s percentage of making the playoffs for their respective league following every game they play, calculated the Caps chances of making the postseason at just 2.9 percent. The site figured Washington would have to win at least 15 to 17 of their remaining contests to have a shot and 15 additional wins only gave them a 75 percent shot.
Somehow, as if a light switch went on, the Caps seemed to finally perfect Hall of Fame player and now rookie head coach Adam Oates more offensive oriented system. The result was not 15 more wins, instead Washington won the 17 games, which boosted their chances to almost 95 percent of making the tournament and now find themselves facing the Rangers for the third straight postseason.
They were led by the player teams typically turn to be led, the team captain. The Capitals captain, The Great 8, Alexander Ovechkin, caught fire. Ovie, who on Tuesday was named the NHL’s No.1 star for the month of April was scoring goals from everywhere on the ice and in big moments of games.
Ovechkin led the League with 14 goals and 22 points in 13 games during the month, as the Capitals posted an 11-1-1 record and ended up capturing their fifth Southeast division title in six seasons. His 14 goals set an April record and spurred the 27-year-old Moscow native to his third Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy, awarded to the League’s top goal-scorer.
Ovechkin was not the only Caps player to step up.
Along with Ovechkin, the core of the Caps franchise for the previous six years has been a group known as the “Young Guns” and while maybe not as young as they used to be, the core three stepped up when it mattered most.
Center Nicklas Backstrom finished with 19-points in his final 14-games. Defenseman Mike Green, who has missed 96 of 212 (45.5 percent) regular season games during the past three seasons, stayed healthy down the stretch and as a result was as big a part of the Caps run. Green scored nine goals and registered 18-points his final 14 games.
The Capitals also received stellar goaltending from rookie net minder Braden Holtby.
Holtby was almost single handedly responsible for the Capitals post season success last year but was equally as magnificent in April. In 10 games, Holtby was 9-1-0 with 2.16 GAA and a .937 save percentage. Backing up Holtby is a guy that’s had playoff success vs. the Rangers in the past and stepped up big-time for Washington when called on to do so in the season’s final month.
Michael Neuvirth was 2-0-1 with 1.99 GAA and a .940 save percentage, as he posted back-to-back wins against Tampa Bay and Montreal, allowing Holtby to catch his breath after starting 11 or more consecutive games for the second time during the season. Two years ago, Neuvy was spectacular vs. NY in the playoffs as he was 4-1 with a 2.00 GAA.
The Capitals were not the only team to finish the season hot. The Rangers, led by their fiery head coach John Tortorella, needed to win almost every night to hold off the charging Winnipeg Jets. The Rangers were 10-3-1 in April and have won five of their last six entering Game 1.
The Rangers aren’t going to play any differently than they did last year when these two teams hooked up. The Blueshirts are going to play physical, they will block shots and will try to disrupt Holtby in front every chance they get.
Even though the Caps have a different system with players like Ovechkin playing a far different game than they did this time last year, this series could look almost identical to last year’s playoff drama. With that said, one of these two teams is sure to prove one theory correct in that teams that finish the season hot do not always find playoff success.
FINISHING HOT MEANS WHAT?
According to an excellent article written by Ken Campbell of the Hockey News, over the past 25 seasons, only twice has the team with the best record in the last 10 games of the season won the Stanley Cup – the New York Rangers in 1994 and the Calgary Flames in 1989.
In fact, the team with the best record in the league in the last 10 games is more likely to lose in the first round of the playoffs than it is to win the Cup.
Over the past 20 years, the team with the best record in the final 10 games of the season has lost in the first round of the playoffs 11 times, including four times in the past five years. It has lost in the second round 10 times, in the conference final three times and in the Stanley Cup final twice. (Yes, that adds up to 26 teams, but there were several years where multiple teams were tied for the best record over the last 10 games.)
Campbell goes on to say, while it is not advisable to completely stink down the stretch, it certainly isn’t a requirement.
Over the past 20 playoffs, the Stanley Cup winner has gained an average of only 12.2 of a possible 20 points in its final 10 games. In 2002, the Detroit Red Wings were a putrid 1-3-6 down the stretch, which was a worse record than that posted by all other playoff teams that season. When the Montreal Canadiens won it all in 1992-93, they posted just a 4-6-0 record in their last 10.
In fact, no Stanley Cup winner over the past 20 years has produced a record better than 7-2-1. Last season, the Los Angeles Kings were furious in the second half of the season, but were actually just 5-2-3 in their final 10. Seven teams that made the playoffs had better records than that, including the 8-1-1 Vancouver Canucks, who fell to the Kings in the first round.