The jinx-o-phobe in me is always wary about writing an “I believe in this team” type of column. I know there will be fans who read such a piece and want to throw their computer or smartphone against the wall, while cursing me to high heaven for not just shutting the hell up and keeping my positivity on the inside.
But I can’t help it. The more I see the Washington Capitals this post-season, the more I think they’re in the early stages of a long playoff run.
That’s not to say I think the road to the Stanley Cup final will be easy for the Caps to travel, nor that they have some quality or element not possessed by the other 14 remaining playoff teams. But this is a different Washington team than the highly entertaining, but easily discouraged group we’ve seen in recent years.
Maybe that mid-season slump was the best thing that could’ve happened to Bruce Boudreau & Co. Maybe Alex Ovechkin’s early-season scoring struggles made him more introspective about his game and forced him to re-evaluate his priorities. Maybe not having Mike Green in the lineup for the last 20 games of the regular season gave the players one less offense-minded crutch on which to lean. Maybe there’s a sense inside the dressing room that another disappointing playoffs would lead team owner Ted Leonsis to instruct GM George McPhee to begin dismantling large sections of the roster.
Whatever the case, the Caps now seem to have developed a spine that once was spaghetti-soft. No longer do they subconsciously start searching for a white flag to wave when the puck doesn’t carom their way. That’s why, through the first four games of their first round series against the New York Rangers, Washington has had just one lead in regulation, yet they’re up three games to one.
Of course, they’ve needed a few breaks to help them gain the advantage over the Blueshirts. But all great teams do. The New York Islanders dynastic team of the early-to-mid-1980s won 19 consecutive series en route to four Cups and five straight Cup final appearances, but one of their best players said they needed some good fortune to push them along,
“I remember during our first Stanley Cup season, we almost lost our best-of-five series to L.A.,” Mike Bossy said. “In our second Cup year, we almost lost to Pittsburgh in a best-of-five. For as good as you have to be to be in position to set that (record), sometimes you need the bounces and breaks to keep it going. During those 19 series, above and beyond our talented team, there’s no doubt in my mind we had a couple breaks along the way.”
But forget about the breaks the Capitals have enjoyed for a second and think of the resilience they’re showing. In Game 4 against the Rangers, for instance, goalie Henrik Lundqvist robbed Ovechkin on a breakaway in overtime. In years past that may have been all the excuses Washington needed to take a penalty out of frustration or blow a defensive assignment.
This time, though, they’re more patient and determined. Perhaps that is a product of the presence of veteran playoff battler Jason Arnott, one of the best trade deadline additions we’ve seen this year. But perhaps it’s a sign of maturity, of lessons learned, of focused desperation.
Hey, maybe I’m wrong and the Caps wind up blowing their 3-1 series advantage over the Rangers, or get swept by their second round opponent. (That ought to even things out with the Jinx Gods, I think). Stranger things have happened.
But maybe superstition hasn’t a damned thing to do with it for this team. Maybe it’s just their time. That wouldn’t surprise me, either.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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