Alex Ovechkin and company should watch old footage of the 90’s Philadelphia Flyers, the early 2000’s Sacramento Kings, the mid 2000’s Philadelphia Eagles and the early 2000 New York Mets. Why you ask? Because they all have one thing in common, they all couldn’t get over the hump.
The Kings never could beat the Lakers, the Eagles never pushed themselves to a championship level, the Flyers always fell short and the Mets teased, exceeded and then failed. Washington, you’re next.
Honestly I shouldn’t care. As a homer I hope desperately that my Rangers will oust the Washington Capitals and begin a Stanley Cup march. Yet the Capitals are so much more intriguing of a storyline.
The Caps roll into the playoffs as the league’s hottest and most dangerous team. In January they were 6th in the Eastern conference and trying to figure out how the new defensive style that Bruce Boudreau implemented this year. Now they are the number one seed after snatching it up from slumping Philly in the last two months of the year. After a 6-0 beat down by the Rangers in late February, the Caps went 16-4 the rest of the way and find themselves as the current favorite to win the Cup.
Boudreau’s system turned out to be more than successful as the Caps finished in the top 5 in GAA and number 2 overall in penalty killing even though they were a middle of the road offensive team. Alex Ovechkin sacrificed the most of any other player as he finished with career lows in goals and points, as did Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom.
Even though the Caps weren’t lighting the lamp as much, they were winning at a higher rate and stifling opponents at the same time.
Now comes the hard part.
Sure all of this worked in the regular season and they benefitted from Tampa Bay’s drop off thanks to their younger players hitting a wall. However, the postseason is a different animal, and it’s one that the Caps haven’t been able to tame.
Last year the Capitals were number one in the entire league and were barely even challenged during the regular season. Once the playoffs hit they began pummeling the Montreal Canadiens and led the series 3-1 thanks to a 17-goal outburst in three games. Yet they lost the series because Montreal shut them down on offensive and Mike Cammalleri was able to find the net frequently even though the Habs registered 70 less shots than the Caps in the last 3 games.
Couple that with their lackluster showing in game 7 against Pittsburgh the previous year and getting ousted by the Flyers in the year before that and the Caps are in must win mode.
This team cannot afford a third straight early round exit as the Eastern Conferences number one seed. If not for the Rangers inability to score in 09 then the Caps would have been eliminated in three straight first-round series. The Caps have to win and win impressively if they want to avoid the stigma that currently sits in front of them.
And you know who it starts with.
Alex Ovechkin has to shake off his down year and be the force that he once was in this series. He has to be physical; he has to charge Henrik Lindquist at will, he has to be 60-goal Ovie instead of this version.
Yes the Rangers are more physical, more rugged and like to slow the game down even more than Washington, but Ovechkin has to break that cycle. If this becomes a defensive struggle then the edge will go to the Rangers simply because that’s how the Rangers have always played and it’s a style of play that benefits them. The Rangers have no Ovechkins, no Alex Semin’s, no big-time playmakers that can change a game. Hell they don’t even have Ryan Callahan who will miss the playoffs because of a broken leg suffered from blocking a shot (by the way, the Rangers lead the league in blocked shots as well as hits).
What they do have is one of the best defensive pairings in the league in Marc Stall and Dan GIrardi. They have a ton of young, big, physical forwards that love to grind it out and wear a team down like Brian Boyle and Artem Anisimov. The Rangers almost beat the Caps two years ago in the same 1 vs. 8 scenario, but were undone by their lack of goal scoring. This year the Rangers outscored their opponents by a larger margin than the Caps… and they’re an 8th seed.
Hence the reason Ovechkin, Semin and company have to get going. If they don’t speed the game up and make the Rangers play at a faster pace then the Caps will have another summer of what if’s. questions and doubts.
Do I think the Caps will win the series? Unfortunately yes. Sure the Rangers owned them in the regular season but that doesn’t matter now. The Caps are red-hot and look better than any other team has at anytime during the year. They are on a mission to quiet the naysayers and doubters and finally get over the hump and they finally have the system and players to do it.
However, we said this about Chris Webber and Vlade Divac, about Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid about the Legion Of Doom and Carlos Beltran. Are the Capitals really ready to take that next step? Or are we watching the same old story with different characters? Beginning Wednesday we’ll find out.