Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Well, they finally did it. The Washington Capitals will advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in the Ovechkin-era. Their opponent will be the Tampa Bay Lightning. The last time the Capitals reached the Eastern Conference Finals, the team featured Olie Kolzig, Peter Bondra, and Sergei Gonchar among others, and the screaming eagle sat on the front of the Capitals’ jersey.
Flash forward twenty years. The team has returned to their classic red jersey look, with a modern take on the logo. The team is led by Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Braden Holtby as well as a collection of players who have experienced some of the biggest playoff collapses of the modern NHL era. Last night, the second round monkey was kicked off the Capitals back and thrown into a windowless, padded room never to be seen again.
While this is arguably the franchise’s biggest win (so far), the team is only halfway to a Stanley Cup championship. Meeting their opponents three times in the regular season, they fared at (1-1-1). Fronted by the firepower of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, the Lightning will be no easy task for the Capitals to continue their deepest playoff run this century.
Stamkos and Kucherov alone combined for 186 points between the two, with Kucherov notching a 100-point season (39g-61a). They also were supported by the stellar defensive play of Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman who finished the regular season with 63 points (17g-43a). The team is anchored by their Vezina Trophy finalist goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. The 23 year-old netminder earned 44 wins in 63 starts for the Bolts this season and ended the regular season with a .920 save percentage and a 2.62 GAA.
The depth of the Lightning’s roster is also full of those responsible for the average DC fan’s playoff nightmares. Among this entourage is Chris Kunitz (ex-Penguin), Ryan Callahan, Dan Girardi, J.T. Miller, and Ryan McDonaugh (ex-Rangers). While this can be an intimidating list, this team has shown its fans that the past means nothing this postseason.
The Capitals must continue with the mentality that head coach Barry Trotz has preached this postseason. When the team gets knocked down, they must get up and fight back. Down 2-0 heading to Columbus, the Caps went on to win four straight playoff games for the first time since the 2009 postseason. Without the assistance of Tom Wilson, who I consider to be in the top 5 Capitals this season, Backstrom, and Andre Burakovsky, Washington faced their biggest challenge yet facing Pittsburgh.
While the Penguins were down Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin for some of the series, the team was with their strongest players and were looking for their third straight Stanley Cup championship. How did the Capitals end Sidney Crosby’s quest for a fourth Stanley Cup? In the best way possible.
Not only did the team play with a determined calmness that seemed to control much of the series, they won in games where they were dominated on the stats sheet. The second period of Game 5 comes to mind where the Penguins might as well have had a powerplay the entire period. The Capitals responded to Pittsburgh’s dominating second period with a four goal third period and a huge win to put the Penguins on the brink of elimination.
The team continued with arguably their best effort of the postseason in recent years and played a determined, disciplined 60-minute game that eventually required overtime with the score knotted at 1-1 at the end of regulation. The series, curse, and Ovechkin’s suffering came to an incredibly satisfying end where Crosby turned the puck over, prompting an Ovechkin pass to Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov skated on the breakaway and went five-hole on Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray, handing the young netminder his first playoff series loss ever.
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 8, 2018
While this was easily the best playoff win many of us Capitals fans have ever witnessed, the team is only halfway towards their ultimate goal. They will be getting Tom Wilson back from his three-game suspension for his hit on Zach Aston-Reese, Backstrom will have a few more days to heal up and hopefully play in Game 1, but Burakovsky’s postseason appears to be in jeopardy after undergoing a “minor surgery” according to Trotz.
With the continuation of this mental toughness, buying into the system they’ve been given, and Braden Holtby consistently playing like playoff Holtby, the Capitals can absolutely move on to the Stanley Cup Final. The difference in the series will be the outstanding defensive play from John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Michal Kempny, Brooks Orpik, Christian Djoos, and Matt Niskanen and also the dominance of Ovechkin and his corps of forwards this postseason. The team believes in themselves, so should the fans. Caps in 6.
By Adam Miller