The Washington Capitals once again find themselves in familiar territory — as Southeast Division champs for the fifth time in six seasons — after a thrilling 5-3 victory over the Winnipeg Jets at the Verizon Center Tuesday night.
While consistently finishing atop one of the worst divisions in all of sports isn’t necessarily breaking news, it’s how they got there this time around though that makes it so special.
Let’s not sugarcoat this — the Washington Capitals were a train wreck for a good chunk of the 2013 season. Their horrid 2-8-1 start made more than a few people openly wonder if first-time coach Adam Oates was the right man for the job, but not everyone remembers the Caps struggles lasted far longer than that.
Case in point: when the Capitals lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 on March 19, they dropped to 12-16-1 and had just a 5.97% chance of making the playoffs.
As Washington took to the ice two days later against Winnipeg, they were in 14th place in the Eastern Conference — seven points out of a playoff spot and nine points behind the Southeast Division leader.
One month later, they’ve improved to 26-18-2 and have officially locked up the 3rd seed.
That, boys and girls, is why we love sports. Just when you think you’ve figured things out and are ready to throw the towel in on the season, your favorite hockey franchise magically gets it together and is suddenly incapable of losing.
Simply playing meaningful hockey once again would be cause for celebration. But the fact that so many different aspects of this franchise have drastically improved in such a short amount of time is almost too good to be true.
After a nearly three-year hiatus, captain Alex Ovechkin is once again viewed as one of the league’s elite players and opposing teams once again lose sleep trying to figure out how to slow him down. His linemate, center Nicklas Backstrom, has also returned to prominence — seemingly registering an assist each and every time Ovechkin lights the lamp.
The powerplay is as potent as ever, and with a little bit of luck will finish the season converting more than 26 percent (which is unheard of). The second line, which features Mike Ribeiro, Troy Brouwer and Martin Erat, is also playing with great confidence and is more than capable of creating scoring chances and disrupting defenses.
And then there are the role players — several of which came up huge for the Caps in their division-clinching victory against the Jets. Bottom half of the roster players, like Matt Hendricks and Jason Chimera, set the tone for the game with first-period goals.
Defensemen like John Erskine and Jack Hillen might not have scored for Washington, but both played big roles in limited the opposition’s chances — including Erskine making two game-changing saves after it appeared goalie Braden Holtby had been beaten.
Look, the last half of a decade has showed us all that regular season success is meaningless in the postseason. I get that.
But the simple fact that the Capitals, for the first time in a long time, were able to handle adversity and not wilt under pressure when things weren’t going their way gives me hope that even better days are on the horizon.
It might not happen this postseason. It might not even happen next season, when the franchise must adjust to playing in a legitimate division with teams that aren’t considered a doormat — but the Caps are at least pointed in the right direction.
They’ve got the right coach in place. Their core players can once again be counted on to be their top performers. If the Capitals can stay healthy and have a little bit of luck and good fortune, there’s no reason to believe this franchise can’t continue to remain competitive each and every time they show up at the rink.