Nothing came easy for the Capitals this season. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe they needed to be cuffed around a bit - to lose eight straight games, to have their coach call them "prima donna perfect" on national television. In hockey, after all, especially playoff hockey, gritty tends to win out over pretty.
Given all that took place - the injuries, the goalie-go-round and the rest - it's hard to believe the Caps finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference. Again. Their makeover from an offense-first team to a defense-first one was as monumental as Tiger Woods' latest swing change, yet it didn't keep them from stealing the first seed with a 16-2-1 run down the stretch.
"In the end, it might have helped us," winger Matt Bradley said. "We had to go through some adversity during the year. We definitely had some low points. They just happened to be recorded for everybody to see."
Yes, those were some trying times that were captured by HBO in the weeks leading up to the Winter Classic. A lesser club might have come apart. But the Caps dusted themselves off, got back on their skates and - with the help of wily Jason Arnott and other trade-deadline pickups - went about reinventing themselves.
Still, it doesn't seem quite real. These are the Caps, these guys who are fourth in the league in goal prevention? These are the Caps winning this seemingly endless succession of 4-3, 3-2, 2-1 games? It's a little disorienting, kind of like watching Michael Jordan in his Wizards incarnation.
So it's hard to entirely trust what we've seen so far. Besides, the Capitals haven't exactly torn it up in the playoffs the past three years, winning just one series despite having the home-ice advantage in all four of them. That, of course, was the reason behind their reboot - the idea that they needed to play hard at both ends if they ever wanted to win the Stanley Cup.
Beyond that, though, there isn't much that separates the top five teams in the conference - only four points. And one of those teams, the Pittsburgh Penguins, played half the season without its best player, Sidney Crosby. So perhaps the Pens, once they get Crosby back, are the club everybody should be worried about.
Then, too, being the first seed in the East doesn't mean a whole lot. Consider: In the past two decades, only three first seeds from the East have reached the Stanley Cup Finals (the '04 Lightning, '01 Devils and '94 Rangers). Five first seeds, on the other hand, have been eliminated in the first round. A first seed, in other words, is almost twice as likely to get bounced in the first round as to make the finals.
Here's another sobering statistic: The Caps are the fifth team in the last 25-odd years to post the best record in the East two (or more) years in a row. But none of those teams - not one - won the Cup in any of those years. How's that for strange?
So the Capitals are bucking some serious history, including their own. They've also drawn the New York Rangers in Round 1, a club that creamed them 7-0 and 6-0 earlier in the season. New York's Henrik Lundqvist leads the NHL in shutouts with 11 - and had the Caps muttering to themselves in the playoffs two years ago (when the Rangers took a 3-1 series lead before letting it slip away). As 1 vs. 8 matchups go, it's a beast.
On the plus side, Jaroslav Halak, the goalie who gave them nightmares last April, is no longer in the conference. The Montreal Canadiens were nice enough to trade him to St. Louis. And Mike Green, missing in action since the 6-zip spanking by the Rangers, should be back for the Capitals. At the very least, he should increase the wattage on their struggling power play.
They've also played their best hockey of the season in the past six weeks. Last year they peaked in January and February, winning 14 straight, then took a break for the Olympics and never reached that level again. The question now is: Can they sustain it?
Actually, there are a lot of questions. There always are at this time of year. Will coach Bruce Boudreau make the right choice between goalies Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov? Will Alexander Semin be a factor, or will he disappear like he has in his last two playoff series? For that matter, will the Capitals revert to their old ways if things start going against them?
We won't know the answer to any of them until the puck drops.
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