Photo: NHL/Getty Images
Verizon Center was quiet and as the minutes started dwindling it was looking more and more apparent. The Washington Capitals window was closing and not a worse way to close a window than to have to bow out to your biggest rival. Heading into last summer, it was a guarantee the Capitals would have a different look this season. Saying goodbye to the likes of Justin Williams, Karl Alzner, Marcus Johansson and Nate Schmidt, there wasn’t any telling what the 2017-18 version of the Capitals would do.
Many fans and pundits didn’t think they would stand a chance. Yet team captain Alex Ovechkin, who arrived to D.C. in the best shape of his life, uttered these words on the first day of training camp back in September:
“We’re not going to be suck this year”
The Capitals had their share of adversity early on. From long-term injuries to defenseman Matt Niskanen and forward Andre Burakosky, to the new, young players adjusting, and some tough losses. There were two switches in November that led to a turnaround. The first coming from a 4-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on November 10 as well as a stretch in late November that carried into December that saw the team win eight of 10 games against teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, San Jose Sharks and the team the Caps will meet in the first round of the playoffs: the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“I said to the guys going in ‘I think coming into this year not a lot of people picked us to do what we’ve done to this point’ and it’s good on the group and the work that’s gone in from the players, trainers, the staff, all of us. They just stayed consistent on trying to build something here,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz after the team’s 5-3 win over the Devils on Saturday night to close out the season.
The team cooled off a little bit around the All-Star break, dropping three of four, then once the All-Star Game concluded, dropped two of their three games after the break before sweeping the Blue Jackets in back-to-back games, including a thrilling goal by Nicklas Backstrom with 43 seconds left for his 200th career goal.
Numerous players contributed to the Capitals’ success this season. Right wing Tom Wilson enjoyed his best season offensively with a career-high 14 goals and 21 assists for 35 points. So too did center Lars Eller, posting a career-high 38 points (18 goals and 20 assists). Evgeny Kuznetsov finished with a career-high in goals (27) and points (83), John Carlson had his best season, leading all NHL defensemen in points with 68, which will make general manager Brian MacLellan desperate to re-sign him when the summer rolls around.
And then there’s Ovechkin. After he scored 33 goals last season, many wondered if the aging factor was kicking in. Ovechkin changed his training over the summer and came into the pre-training camp workouts flying. Despite being 32-years old, Ovechkin looked and played like he was in his mid-20’s again. His 49 goals led the league and Ovechkin also achieved milestones of posting his 1,100th point, his 600th goal and played in his 1,000th career game.
“I don’t think lots of people thought we were going to be in that position. We didn’t know as well because we lost key guys, experienced guys, leaders but you can see the young guys stepping up,” said Alex Ovechkin. “I think the balance in our team right now is pretty good. It’s a very good thing going into the playoffs.
It all added up to the team’s fourth consecutive playoff appearance, all coming in the Trotz-MacLellan era. It added up to the third consecutive Metropolitan Division title. And it ultimately added up to the Capitals appearing in the playoffs in 10 of the last 11 years.
We all know the playoff narrative when it comes to the Capitals and it isn’t just the team, it’s the city of Washington D.C. as a whole. The Redskins were the last of the major four sports teams to achieve the kind of greatness associated with winning a championship and the only other team besides the Redskins to win titles were the 1978 Bullets (NBA) and the 1924 Senators (MLB).
The Capitals weren’t supposed to be here, the “experts” said and Alex Ovechkin and company are hungry to prove the doubters wrong in an even greater capacity.
“The guys are ready. The guys are excited and I’m excited as well,” said Alex Ovechkin.
By Michael Marzzacco