In the season's beginning, this team had high expectations from the media, fans, and themselves. Their training camp t-shirts had a picture of the Cup on the back and said, "It's our year." Their had been a lot of praise surrounding the signings of Mike Knuble and Brenden Morrison. I didn't know quite how this team would respond to their rude escort out of the playoffs last year to the team's biggest playoff foe in history, and I know I wasn't the only won who worried for the worst. This franchise has disappointed me before with promise, only to collapse on itself. I had to be sure the Caps were for real, and not merely over-achieving last season as the team did in 1998. I was proven wrong almost right out of the gate. This team was in control from the start of the season. There were some consistency issues and bad habits, but the core and potential was there for a historic year. Seeing signs of what had been their demise against the Penguins last May, I was cautiously optimistic for a deep playoff run.
Then Chris Clark was traded to Columbus, and Alex Ovechkin was named the new team captain. That is when things started to get interesting. The Caps won their first three games under Ovi before losing 7-4 to Tampa. And that was the game this team needed to come together. After Ovi and Steve Downie had a very physical game against each other all night, they were both sent to the penalty box for matching roughing minors. Immediately upon leaving the box, Downie challenged Ovechkin. And Ovechkin agreed. Ovi and Downie took off their helmets and gloves and dropped their sticks while I (like many Caps fans) grew excited to get to see Ovi's fighting skills. Suddenly, out of no where, Matt Bradley came flying in and defended his captain, pummeling Downie into the ice. That was when this team united under Ovechkin's leadership, and it all took off from there. The next night, the Caps came back after being down 4-1 against the Panthers to win 5-4 in a shootout, and they didn't lose for thirteen more games.
After completing the third-longest winning streak in league history, the Capitals didn't let up. They finished 2010 losing only 4 games in regulation, with only 15 regulation losses on the season and only 5 at home. They locked up the Eastern Conference only couple of days after any other team clinched even a playoff spot. They clinched the Presidents' Trophy with a week remaining in the season. In the second half of the season, the Capitals have dominated the league like no other team since the Oilers in the 80s.
Now it is time to leave all of that behind and look to the "Second Season," meaning the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It is the only goal left for the statistically best team in the league. As we all know, however, the Stanley Cup isn't won on paper. 16 wins. That is all that stands between the Capitals and their first ever Stanley Cup. Their first-round opponent is still to be determined: If the Flyers win this afternoon, then the Caps will meet the Canadiens first. If the Rangers win, then we will have a rematch of last year's first round series. Ovechkin is currently tied with Steven Stamkos for the league lead in goals, but both Stamkos and Sidney Crosby (who is behind them with 49 goals) play later tonight. Ovechkin has already lost the Art Ross trophy to Henrik Sedin.
For the first time in nearly two months, this team is about to play in games that matter. It is time for them to dig deep, and I have faith that this year's squad can get it done. But will they?
This will begin to be answered on Thursday and Verizon Center.