We find ourselves here, again, Caps fans. On the cusp of another Stanley Cup Playoffs first round series. Unlike years past, the rewards for a long, hard-fought regular season didn’t come easy. Quite the opposite. No President’s Trophy. No number one seed. Not even a Southeast Division Champions banner to hang in the rafters with the rest of them.
In fact, with all the trials and tribulations of this campaign, it feels like the Washington Capitals have been playing “playoff hockey” for months. At least, the coach seems to think so anyway.
No, this season has been described as a roller coaster, and it’s felt like that. The high of the seven-game win streak to start the season. The doldrums that got Bruce Boudreau fired. The blown three-goal leads. All the man-games missed due to Nick Backstrom’s jaw running into Rene Bourque’s elbow and Mike Green’s sports hernia (injuries not related). The not-blown three goal leads that felt like it. The many moods and wildly varied facial expressions of Dale Hunter (note: sarcasm alert). Goalies dropping like flies.
The off-season will only bring more concern, when it finally arrives. Alexander Semin, Mike Knuble, Jeff Halpern, Dennis Wideman, Tomas Vokoun; all unrestricted free agents. Mike Green, John Carlson, Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle all RFAs. The team, as it has been constructed the past several season, could be gutted. This was supposed to be the team that competed for the Cup multiple times. Now, they come in heavy underdogs to the defending champions in the First Round.
Kinda tough to take.
It’s been tough around here before, though. If you’ve been around since the franchise’s inception in 1974, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, well, that’s material for another column, really. Suffice to say there were seasons that you counted total victories for the season on two hands. There were bitter defeats to the team that played on Long Island (really, there was a time the Islanders were relevant). There were seasons that no one knew if there would even be a next season. They played home games in the Stanley Cup Finals in front of 75 percent Red Wings fans. I was there.
That, friends, is heartache.
Things are different now, with nightly sell-outs and Capitals gear everywhere in the DMV. But that doesn’t make this season any easier. To the contrary, this season has been, in a word, hard. Hockey is hard. Only one teams wins every year. Everyone else ends up with disappointment.
These Capitals have been impossible to predict this season, you never know which team is going to show up on a night-to-night, period-to-period, shift-to-shift basis. Anyone that tells you differently is crazy, lying, or trying to protect themselves.
I wish I had a crystal ball to assuage all your fears, to be able to shed some insight on the result of this series. But that wouldn’t be any fun, would it? Most analytical prognosticators don’t picture the outcome to be very rosy for this bunch. In fact, yours truly even predicted the Bruins in five when looking at things without my Rock the Red colored glasses on. I’m certainly hoping for a different outcome, but Boston is so solid – top-to-bottom and in goal – as an analyst you simply can’t ignore the facts.
The Caps enter this series a heavy underdog, a role they haven’t played since 2008, when Alex Ovechkin led Bruce Boudreau’s post-Thanksgiving blitz to the first of four straight division titles, not secured until the final day of the season. This year was similar in that even playing Game 81 the team didn’t know if it was going to be in the playoffs at all.
Not only did they qualify, they drew the seventh seed, with the punishment of facing the defending Stanley Cup Champion. It will be a daunting task. The Caps have a 22-year old goalie with all of 21 games of NHL experience, none in the playoffs. Their power play has been nonexistent lately, the penalty kill merely average. The Bruins were tied for second in the league in goals-for per game and sixth in fewest goals allowed per game. The Bruins are talent, deep, and mean.
Going back to 1980, no team lower than a fifth seed in a conference has ever won a Stanley Cup.
But none of that matters anymore. Nothing else matters. All that matters is Game One.
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.