Seriously, have I told you how much I’m enjoying the second half of the 2013 NHL season?
Because of the Washington Capitals’ pitiful 2-8-1 start and the fact that they play in the Southeast Division, easily the worst division in all of professional sports, everyone rushed to write them off.
Well, a funny thing has happened since then — the Capitals actually learned how to play in first-time coach Adam Oates’ system and they once again resemble a competent hockey franchise on and off the ice.
And yet, even though the Caps have gone 19-9-1 since then, people have still convinced themselves this team isn’t worth taking seriously. They see Washington’s 12-3-0 record against the Southeast Division and 9-14-2 record against the rest of the conference, and chalk it up to a mediocre team simply padding its stats against a bunch of terrible teams.
And that’s fine.
Regardless of whether anyone outside of the D.C. metro area has noticed or not, the Caps are playing their best hockey of the season when it matters most — riding a five-game winning streak down the stretch. Not only that, but they’ve gone 9-1-1 in their last 11 games and 7-0-1 in their last eight road games.
They’re getting excellent play from both goalies — Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth. Their highest-paid players — Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green — are once again their best players. They’re getting consistent play and solid contribution from roll players such as defenseman Jack Hillen, Jay Beagle and Steven Oleksy. And, most importantly, they’re doing the little things that matter most in the postseason — like crashing the net, creating traffic in front and making a concerted effort to play smart, responsible hockey on both sides of the rink.
They’re not perfect, by any means, but they’re everything local hockey fans could have asked for after the first month of the season. It wasn’t that long ago that people scoffed when general manager George McPhee pushed all of his chips in the middle at the trade deadline as he shipped off a highly-rated prospect in favor of another veteran forward in a “win-now” move that reeked of desperation.
I still think the Caps are more than a player or two away from being legitimate contenders, but it clearly looks as if the players were energized by GMGM’s display of confidence at the trade deadline.
With eight games remaining, the Capitals now have an 86 percent chance of making the postseason. And once they’re there, maybe — just maybe — the Caps can continue this enjoyable ride.
If the season ended today, the Capitals would earn the third seed in the Eastern Conference and would host the Ottawa Senators in the opening round. Conveniently enough, these two teams will face each other twice over the two and a half weeks of the regular season.
Anyone interested in scouting a possible playoff opponent might want to circle April 18 and April 25 on the calendar. The only time the Caps and Sens have faced off this season, Ottawa earned a 3-2 victory. Of course, that game took place during Washington’s hellish start (the defeat dropped the Caps to 1-4-1 on the season) and we all know this is a completely different team now.
No matter what happens from here, it’s nice to have meaningful hockey games to look forward to. After the Dale Hunter era and the first half of this season, it wasn’t necessarily a guarantee that was always going to be the case.