Though it’s still the first round, the signs are becoming more and more obvious.
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The Washington Capitals seemed poised for a long playoff run.
That’s not to say the road to the Stanley Cup Finals will be easy for the Caps. But this just feels like a different Washington team than the highly entertaining, yet easily discouraged group that has played in recent seasons.
Maybe that midseason 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 rigid spine that once was spaghetti-soft. No longer do they subconsciously start searching for a white flag 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 the Capitals lead the series 3-1.
In order to pull this off, they’ve needed a few breaks. But all great teams do. The New York Islanders of the early-to-mid-1980s won 19 consecutive series en route to four Cups and five consecutive 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-5 series to LA,” former Islanders winger Mike Bossy said. “In our second Cup year, we almost lost to Pittsburgh in a best-of-5. 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, goalie Henrik Lundqvist denied Ovechkin on a breakaway in overtime. In years past that might have been the excuse 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 this season. 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 lead over the Rangers. Stranger things have happened.
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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