- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2018

The Washington Capitals clinched their 10th postseason appearance in 11 years. They won the Metropolitan Division for the third straight season. But none of it will matter to Capitals fans if they don’t have a better showing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs than they’ve recently become known for.

But it would be a mistake to sleep on these Capitals. After three straight years of second-round playoff exits, here are five reasons why fans should hold out hope this spring.

5. They’re hot, hot, hot

Winning 12 of your last 15 regular season games is the best way to enter the playoffs with momentum. They beat the playoff-bound Sharks, Jets, Penguins and Devils by a combined score of 13-6 in that span. They did drop games to the Flyers and Predators, too, but when the Capitals are playing their best, they can skate with any team on any night.

It’s worth noting in this spot that the Capitals are as healthy as they are hot. T.J. Oshie and Jay Beagle are the only important pieces who missed games due to injuries in the last week of the season, and coach Barry Trotz has indicated he expects both to be ready for Game 1 against Columbus.

4. Ovechkin’s rebound year

Let’s not take the team’s star for granted. Alex Ovechkin’s 2016-17 campaign was a down year by his standards: He posted 33 goals in 82 games for his career-worst goals per game average (0.40) and scored only 16 even-strength goals. He added just eight points and a minus-4 plus/minus in 13 playoff games.

This makes it all the more incredible that Ovechkin returned to lead the NHL with 49 goals this season and win the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy at age 32. Only Phil Esposito accomplished that at age 32 or older since the expansion. Ovechkin is healthy after a brief “day-to-day” scare at the end of the season (he played all 82 games for the second straight year), and he’s made it clear the most important part of the year is coming up — a chance to rectify the lack of postseason success in his legacy and lead his team to a Stanley Cup.

3. Lower expectations

Can it be a good thing that the Capitals didn’t win the Presidents’ Trophy? Certainly. Only two of the past 14 Presidents’ Trophy winners went on to claim the Stanley Cup. For the first time since 2015, a team other than Washington — the Nashville Predators — accrued the most standings points during the regular season and won the honor. Four other teams also finished better than the Capitals.

Storylines abound. Can the expansion Vegas Golden Knights (109 points) continue their unprecedented campaign and shock the world with a Stanley Cup? How much more dangerous can the Boston Bruins (112) become when fully healthy? Can the Predators avenge last year’s loss to Pittsburgh and deliver a Cup to hockey-crazy Nashville? Perhaps the Capitals will better find their way in the playoffs with some of the expectations and pressure focused elsewhere.

2. A year of upsets on the ice

Precisely because they weren’t the best team in hockey this year, an upset or two will be required for the Capitals to go all the way. But is there a better year for that to happen? At the 2018 Winter Olympics in February, both Team USA’s women’s hockey team and men’s curling team won gold medals. The Canadian women had dominated the Americans since 2002, but the U.S. upset Canada in the gold medal game via shootout, 3-2. And the men’s curling team came back from an early hole to advance out of the round robin, upset Canada in the semifinals and beat top-seeded Sweden in the finals.

Members of both teams attended the Stadium Series Game March 3 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium to see the Washington Capitals manhandle the Toronto Maple Leafs, 5-2. Could some of their good juju have rubbed off on Washington? Enough for the Capitals to pull out some upsets of their own?

1. This second-round curse can’t last forever, right?

Curses are meant to be broken. If the Chicago Cubs can win a World Series after a 108-year drought, a Washington team in one of the major four leagues can advance past the second round of the playoffs. The Capitals came back from a three-games-to-one deficit to the Penguins and forced a Game 7 last year. If the puck had bounced a different way that night, the city wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

Besides, would you rather put your money on the Wizards?

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