Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why This Spring Will Be Different

Springtime in DC is about to get a shake-up. Sure there are still cherry blossoms, no professional basketball team playing, and a losing baseball team, but there is hope this year that has been lacking in this city for a long time: hope (if not expectation) for a championship. The Caps could very well deliver on this hype, and there are several reasons why this year's playoff run will be different than last year's, and for the better.

1. Experience
This is still a young team, and as clique as it sounds, Aerosmith was right in their song Dream On: "You've got to lose to know how to win." Two years ago, the Caps learned what it took to get to the playoffs. Last year, they learned what it takes to be successful in the playoffs. Those heartbreaking Game 7 loses of 2008 and 2009 to rivals taught this team how to prepare for a long playoff run. This season, we have had a front row seat to what happens when you combine raw talent with experience, and the result is terrifying to the rest of the league.

2. Preparation
This ties into the last section, but this spreads through not only the players, but the entire organization. It started on the trade deadline, when GM George McPhee made four deals to bring players to Washington to add depth. The result was that Bruce Boudreau was forced to scratch 5 healthy skaters every night. Boudreau used this to give players a rotation of rest, which could prove to be invaluable down the stretch when players get banged up. The organization saw what happened last year when players were forced to play through serious injuries, and did what was necessary to ensure it wouldn't happen again. The rest also allowed players to heal up before the playoffs, so players are not entering the second season already injured. Mike Green has already said that this is the best he's ever felt before the playoffs.

3. Veteran Leadership
Something that was missing last season was gritty, veteran leadership. With all do respect to Fedorov, Kozlov, and Brashear, they are no Mike Knuble, Brendan Morrison, or Scott Walker when it comes to being a gritty veteran. It was extremely helpful to have Fedorov and Kozlov there to help bring along Ovechkin, and especially Semin. But they weren't gritty players. They were traditional Russian hockey: smooth, style, and sparkle. Brashear added grit, but it became clear throughout the playoffs that the Caps needed more. With Knuble on board (and with a Cup ring on his finger), players have been reflecting his style of play in terms of going to the net. He has helped incredibly with the development of Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr. Jason Chimera is another new player with toughness. These players are leaders in the locker room because they have been there, and it makes the players on the ice follow their hard work ethic. If the Capitals don't win the Cup, it won't be because they were "too cute." Unless, of course, the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Semin line is reunited.

4. Momentum
Entering last season's playoffs, the Capitals played down to their non-playoff competition with their seed already locked up. And they lost. The Caps carried a five game winning streak into the last game of the season, and lost the final game in the shootout. Their competition was also much tougher this year. The team had a 14-game winning streak this season as well. The Capitals have been fine-tuning their play for the last month or so, and that means they shouldn't need two games to wake up like they did against the Rangers last year.

5. Desire
This hunger will have the most impact this postseason. Ovechkin and Semin were rudely shoved out of the Olympic tournament by rival Canada. That same team gave Mike Green his third high-profile snub of the year when we wasn't selected for Vancouver. The entire team got watch the rival Pittsburgh Penguins lift the Cup last June after pushing them to 7 games. No doubt there was a feeling in the room that had the Caps won that game, the Cup could have been there's. And then there is Ovechkin and Crosby. I am just as sick of this debate as anyone (mainly because we won't know the winner for at least another 15 years), and as much as the two players involved claim it doesn't affect them, that is far from the truth. Both want to be considered the best in the world, and if anyone saw Crosby's last game this season then they saw how badly he wanted "Ovechkin's Trophy." Ovechkin wants to prove himself, and he knows this is his time. There is nothing Ovechkin wants more right now than the Stanley Cup, and anyone who has seen his play knows that when he wants something bad enough, nothing stands in his way.

This is a better team than a year ago. This is a deeper team than a year ago. This is a smarter team than a year ago. As the second season begins, the Caps are poised for their first Stanley Cup, which is something you couldn't say last year. It is far from a guarantee, but the Capitals could bring DC it's first major professional sports championship in 17 years.

Enjoy the ride.

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