There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear…
For the tenth time in franchise history, the Washington Capitals are advancing to the second round of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs. Only twice have they escaped the second round. In its own way, the second round has been a special place of misfortune for the Caps. In 1986 they entered the second round as a heavy favorite to oust the New York Rangers, but lost in six games to a team that finished 29 points behind them in the regular season standings.
In 1988 the Caps skated into the second round fresh off a thrilling seven-game series win over the Philadelphia Flyers in which they came back from a three-games-to-one deficit and won the series in overtime on a goal by current head coach Dale Hunter. They found the New Jersey Devils facing them in the second round, and they dispatched the Devils in business-like fashion in Game 1 by a 3-1 margin. But with less than seven minutes left in that game, Pat Verbeek and Rod Langway tangled up behind the Caps net, and Verbeek slice Langway’s left calf open with his skate. The series-ending injury to their top defenseman discombobulated the Capitals, who surrendered 15 goals over the next two games to go down two-games-to-one, a disadvantage they would be clawing uphill against for the rest of the series before losing Game 7 by a 3-2 margin.
In 1991, the Caps won another their opening round series against the Rangers, only to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. It would be the first time the Capitals would face the Penguins in the playoffs, the Penguins coming off a hard-fought seven-game series against the Devils in round one. The Caps gave their fans a reason to hope for better things when they beat the Penguins in Game 1, 4-2, on goals by Kelly Miller and three defensemen – Kevin Hatcher, Al Iafrate, and Calle Johansson. But the Penguins acquainted Caps fans with the concept of hopes crushed, taking Game 2 in a wild 7-6 overtime decision, and then closing out the series in Games 4 and 5 on their way to their first Stanley Cup.
In 1994 the Caps managed to beat the Penguins in a six-game opening round, but they were little more than a speed bump for the Rangers on their march to a championship, beating the Caps in the first three games of the series by a combined score of 14-5 and eventually winning the series four games to one.
After that, the Caps would win second round series in 1998 (on their own march to a Stanley Cup final), but it would be the only second round series they would play until 2009. There, they faced the Penguins again in the first post-season meeting of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. The series lived up to the hype, and then some. Semyon Varlamov stole a goal right off the goal line in 3-2 Game 1 win for the Caps. Ovechkin and Crosby exchanged hat tricks in a 4-3 Game 2 win for Washington that might have been the best mano-a-mano duel in recent playoff history. Pittsburgh won the middle three games, the last one a harbinger of things to come when Capitals defensemen Tom Poti, trying to block a pass from Evgeni Malkin across the Capitals’ crease, deflected the puck into his own net for a 4-3 overtime loss. The Caps returned the favor with a 5-4 overtime win in Pittsburgh in Game 6, but the clock struck midnight – loudly – in Game 7 for the Caps. The Penguins scored two first period goals and then another two minutes into the third period and won going away, 6-2, to take the series.
Last season, Washington knocked the Rangers out of the playoffs for the fourth time in franchise history, which led them to the Tampa Bay Lighting, a team against which they had a 4-1-1 record in the regular season. But the Lightning stunned the Caps with a pair of wins on Washington ice to start the series, and the Caps never recovered, getting swept in a seven-game playoff series for only the third time in franchise history, and the first time they were swept sooner than the conference final.
That is a lot of unfortunate history in the second round. Generally, the losses fall into two types. There are those in which the Caps were a hard-working team of good, but not elite skill that just did not have another gear they could call upon to move further. The 1988, 1991, and 1994 teams would fall under this category. Then there was the team that simply underachieved – the 2011 team. You could make an argument that the Caps of 2009 were of the former category, but this was a team that had the series on its plate with a Game 7 on home ice and gagged on it.
Which brings us to the 2012 team about to enter the second round, and there is something happening here. In some respects they resemble the teams of the first category – ones that have their share of hard working players in a system that stresses responsibility and attention to defense. It is not a risk-taking team, certainly not of the type that Caps fans have become used to in recent years. As such, one wonders if it has the next gear to call upon to move past the next opponent, the gear that those teams in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s did not have.
In other respects this 2012 edition of the Caps looks like the second category of teams from the past – a team that does have high-end talent -- a team with that extra gear -- but, as evidenced from their seventh-place finish in the Eastern Conference in the regular season, one capable of underachieving on large scale.
Something else seems to be going on here, though. This team has a different look to it than any of those in either of the two categories identified. At least through the first round of this series, the Caps seem to have taken a page from each of the other categories of teams. The Caps held the Boston Bruins to a total of 15 goals in seven games and killed off 21 of 23 shorthanded situations. That they would do so against a team as deep as the battle-tested defending Stanley Cup champions is evidence of a team-wide willingness to put in the effort, to do the little things and do the hard work it takes to grind out wins at this time of year. A lot like those teams of the 1980’s and early 1990’s.
But this team is much more skilled than those earlier teams. The core of this roster is still the one that led the Caps to three consecutive 100-point seasons, two consecutive conference titles, and a Presidents Trophy. Alex Ovechkin led all Caps with five points for the series with the Bruins and tied with Boston’s Rich Peverley for the lead among all players. Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich were each 1-3-4 in a close-checking series, and Alexander Semin had three goals. The difference is that when the skill didn’t come out to play, these same players did the things they needed to do to grind out wins.
The mating of elements from teams of years past seems to have created a new compound for the 2012 Capitals – resolve. And they applied both the noun and verb usages of the term in the opening round. They resolved doubts about their ability to compete with a team that would challenged them physically and psychologically. They also expressed a firmness of purpose and a determination – a resolve – to do what they needed to do to score and not be scored upon.
It is this new substance that the Capitals lacked in sufficient quantity in the earlier editions of teams that failed in the second round, and it was almost entirely absent from the teams that failed more recently. But the Caps appear to have found the wellspring of resolve and will have to apply it liberally to the next challenge in the road to a Stanley Cup.