WASHINGTON — When you haven’t advanced past the second round of the playoffs since 1998, is it justified to have high hopes for the upcoming season? Especially when those plans have been shattered year after year?
The Washington Capitals, who open the 2015-16 season at home on Saturday at Verizon Center against the New Jersey Devils, don’t want to live in the past, even though the reason for their optimism is what happened in last year’s postseason.
The Caps came within 1:41 of knocking off the best team in the league in five games and reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. They eventually fell to the Rangers in overtime in the decisive game. All seven games of the series were decided by one goal.
It was a crushing defeat for a franchise that owns the franchise on crushing defeats. This one, though, felt different.
The Capitals, to a man, believed they should have won, that they finally had the team to go far in the playoffs. That’s why many NHL writers and broadcasters are picking them to go even further this year.
Defenseman Karl Alzner likes the recognition, but isn’t getting carried away by it.
“This is the first time, I think, since I’ve been here, where we’ve been projected at the beginning of the year by some people to go right to the end,” he said. “That’s nice to see and that’s good. That’s probably a bit of a boost also. But we’ve got to go out there and do it. We haven’t proven anything over the last bunch of years in terms of playoff success, so we really want to do that.”
Alex Ovechkin, who turned 30 last month and enters his 11th NHL season, echoes Alzner.
“We have to do some big things right now because (for) 10 years it’s always been the same thing.”
The Capitals acquired winger T.J. Oshie to play on the top line with Ovechkin, and the new guy already senses how much the “Great 8” wants to win.
“The way he acts on the bench, in the locker room and on the ice, everything he does it seems he wants to win more than anyone else,” says Oshie.
It’s hard to win more than the Washington’s other newly-acquired winger Justin Williams has. He’s won two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings and is considered the best game-seven player in NHL history. And he believes the Capitals also have the right pieces to be a championship team.
“We feel that, and obviously other people on the outside feel that as well,” says Williams of his new team’s expectations. “But it’s what you feel in your dressing room. I like the closeness of this team, I like the skill of this team, and I also like the work of this team. So, if we keep our heads and everyone gets better every day, we’re going to have a great squad.”
2015 -16 has the makings of a fun season for the Capitals. You’re justified to have those expectations when you have one of the greatest all-time goal scorers in Ovechkin, last year’s NHL assists leader in Nicklas Backstrom, a top-five goaltender in the recently extended Braden Holtby and a dynamic skills player in Oshie. That squad is led by a veteran coach trusted by the players in Barry Trotz, and sports a solid defense along with the best power play in the league.
Those are all the ingredients of a good team, possibly a championship caliber one.
We’ll address that distinction come playoff time in April.