The Washington Capitals didn't expect to be here. After a blistering 7-0 start, many expected the Capitals to rise to the top of the Eastern Conference yet again, beating up on lowly Southeast Division competition in their wake.
That's not the way it went down, however. The Caps stumbled following their strong start, and by the end of November, head coach Bruce Boudreau was out and franchise legend Dale Hunter was in. Things haven't exactly been smooth since the coaching change, but Washington qualified for the postseason, and after years of finishing near the top only to flop in the playoffs, maybe this was the outcome they need to have a strong playoff run.
We asked Becca H. of Capitals blog Japers' Rink to answer a few questions for us heading in to the 2012 postseason.
1) What's the biggest reason you have confidence in the Caps heading into the postseason?
Probably the biggest reason to have confidence in them -- or even the smallest sliver of hope about their chances -- is that there's been a sense all year long that we're not seeing the best this team has to offer. A couple of the individual performances have picked up in the last third of the season but overall it's been a season of underachievement, from both a team and a player standpoint. That's been frustrating to watch over the course of the year, but you'd have to think that for the playoffs it makes them potentially scary - if every thing starts clicking, there's no reason to think they can't make at least a little noise.
2) What's the biggest question mark surrounding the Caps heading into the playoffs?
With the recent injuries to first Tomas Vokoun and then Michal Neuvirth, the easy first answer would be goaltending - if either (or both) are out for an extended period of time, and they might be, is Braden Holtby capable of carrying a team in the NHL playoffs? Are the Caps going to be able to make any kind of run with Holtby, a not-yet-NHLer, and Dany Sabourin, a career AHLer, as their goaltending tandem?
That being said, we've seen teams go pretty far with goaltenders who wouldn't exactly be first ballot Vezina nominees at the best of times. So the biggest question mark remains pretty much unchanged from past years (albeit complicated by a slightly smaller question mark this time around, which is Dale Hunter's coaching ability in a playoff situation): can the Caps find some consistency and combine the talent we know they have with the work ethic we know they need in order to make a run? Their inability to do so over the past few years has contributed to their early playoff exits but this year it was also a contributing factor in the team almost missing the playoffs altogether; whether or not that serves as a wake-up call for them remains to be seen.
3) If there's one player on the Caps that will have a breakout playoff campaign, who will it be?
Nicklas Backstrom. He had a very disappointing and un-Backstrom-like performance in the postseason last year (capping off a disappointing and un-Backstrom-like regular season) but in general he's been one of the team's best playoff performers over the past few years and there's no reason to think he won't be again, particularly since he's looked great since returning to the lineup and gets better every game. And if you want to find a silver lining to missing 40 games, look no further than the fact that he'll be well-rested and extra motivated at a time of year when both are at a premium...
4) When all's said and done, the Caps' playoff chances hinge on...
... cutting back on mental mistakes. The Caps have turned shooting themselves in the foot into something of an art form, and it's been a consistent presence in their season; no one's been immune, from the goalies right on up through the top line. Their inability to focus at times was a factor right up to the spectacular overly-stressful finish to the year. The team had multiple chances to tighten their grip on a playoff spot early but got in their own way by making mistakes that cost them games they needed and were then forced to wait until the second-to-last game (and get a little help) to even lock up a postseason berth.
At the end of the day success in the playoffs isn't necessarily achieved by teams that have the most talent - the successful teams are the ones that combine their talent with discipline and focus, the teams that execute their systems, minimize mistakes and make their own luck. If the Caps want to be one of those successful teams, they can't rely on their talent to carry them or their stars to show up like they have in the past, they have to focus.
5) Give a prediction. How far will Washington go in these Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Before the season started it felt like this team had the potential to go to at least the Conference Finals if not further (and for many of us that was what constituted success in the postseason after so many early exits). After the way this year has gone, though... just making the darn playoffs was something of an accomplishment. So let's aim high and say they get to the second round before scheduling tee times.
For more on the Capitals, check in with Japers' Rink.