Picking Splinters: Caps Are Cup Worthy

Round 1 was exactly what the Washington Capitals needed.

The New York Rangers pushed them. The Caps pushed back. The Blueshirts applied some pressure, leading to a pair of overtime games. The Caps never crumbled. And after just five games Washington found its killer instinct, putting their skate on their opponent’s throat and never relenting en route to a 3-1 win in the series finale.

With the victory – over an opponent that arguably presented the worst first round matchup of any team in the Eastern Conference – the Caps put to rest many of the hexes and faults that had sunk their playoff efforts in the past. So now it’s time to ask, is this the year?

From the way things looked in Round 1, I’d say it could be one of several.

Washington’s recent past is virtually synonymous with playoff failure: A seven-game ouster by the Flyers in Round 1 in 2008; blowing a 2-0 series lead to the Penguins in Round 2 in 2009; crumbling in seven against the Canadiens in the first round last season. Those teams though looked very different than the one that skated to victory last Saturday at Verizon Center.
Those teams seemed young, inexperienced and unprepared for the different game that greeted them every postseason. Even as opponents took away their usual avenues of attack, the bullheaded Caps simply tried to force the issue – and forced long passes through the neutral zone that often led to turnovers and goals for the opposition.

This postseason? The Caps have been like a stream flowing down the side of the mountain, always adapting and always finding a way to their goal. Take Game 2 against the Rangers. After the Caps posted two quick goals in the first five minutes of the second period, it was sound, disciplined defense that helped them cruise to a 2-0 win. Two games later, trailing 3-0 on their opponent’s home ice, Washington relied on its super-charged offense to rally to a 4-3 victory. However the Caps have needed to play in order to secure a win, they’ve done so. And their young players seem to be leading the way.

A few seasons back the Caps issued a collectible poster depicting Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green in wild, wild west-fashion below a title of “Young Guns.” Well the Caps again seem to be sporting some serious new firepower in these playoffs.

Start with the defense. Coming into the playoffs, plenty of pundits, myself included, questioned whether or not the tandem of John Carlson and Karl Alzner could stand up to the pressure of the playoffs and continue to function as the Caps’ shutdown pairing. Uh, yup. The tandem helped hold the Rangers to under two goals per game over the course of the series and never looked nervous or seemed to panic and make a bad decision.

The kid in the crease didn’t do too bad either. Michal Neuvirth was superb in stopping the Rangers’ offensive threats. He seemed composed at all times, even after giving up three goals – two in rapid succession – in Game 4. While covering that game at the Garden, one Rangers fan sitting behind the upper press box urged New York to “shoot on this minor leaguer.” I suspect that the barb stemmed from the fact the fan had never heard of Neuvirth. If he had, he’d know that Neuvirth wasn’t just a minor leaguer, but a minor league champion, hoisting the Calder Cup with the Hershey Bears. The youngin’ can handle himself in the postseason, it seems.

Up front, rookie Marcus Johansson was arguably the Caps’ best forward in Round 1. His two goals and two assists place him third among Washington’s postseason point scorers, but that sells him short. Through the five games against the Rangers, Johansson leads the team in points per 60 minutes of ice time (3.54) and his fast-skating, relentless pressure helped him to a mark of .9 penalties drawn per 60 minutes. Not bad, kid.

There’s still a long road to the Stanley Cup, but from what I’ve seen thus far, there’s no reason the Caps shouldn’t be considered a Cup-worthy contender. And based on how the young players have performed – win or lose – it feels like this could be the start of something very special in the District.