Are the Capitals finally a playoff team?

The Capitals believe Brayden Holtby is their goaltender of the future. (Tim Kolupanowich/CM)

Tim Kolupanowich: The Washington Capitals have averaged 108 points in the four seasons prior to this one, but that regular season success has translated into just two playoff series wins. But this year appears different. They limped throughout the season, coach Bruce Boudreau was fired and they were in danger of missing the playoffs altogether until the final week of the regular season. They weren’t considered a favorite to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in a while, but they have defeated the defending champion Boston Bruins in the first round, having played Game 7 on the road in Beantown. Prior to this win, the Caps were 1-3 in Game 7s in the Alex Ovechkin era while Boston won three last year, so I ask you Jeff, are the Capitals finally a playoff team?

Jeff Blay: Based on their first round effort, it would appear so, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. There’s no doubt the Caps faced a lot of adversity this season, not to mention the struggles of their captain and at one time, consistent 100-point scorer Alex Ovechkin, but maybe that adversity is just what the team needed to band together and step up when needed most. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have coach Dale Hunter behind the bench either, as he is no stranger to winning playoff games and series coming from the exceptionally successful London Knights (OHL) organization he previously ran with his brother, Mark. While the 2012 playoffs have proven to be wide-open, I think the Caps have a better chance this year than any previous. They have less pressure on them being that they just squeezed into the postseason and with Hunter leading the surge, defence and team play will be stressed, so the load will be spread out through the team instead of resting mainly on Ovechkin’s shoulders as it has in previous years.

TK: This is the first time Ovechkin is averaging under 20 minutes per game in the playoffs as Hunter is preaching defense more than Boudreau ever did and he has the role players needed to shut down the opposition. The four lowest time on ice totals of his playoff career all came in Round 1 against Boston. It used to be if you stopped Ovechkin, you stopped the Caps, now if you stop Ovechkin you still have 19 other guys to deal with. Hard workers such as Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera and Joel Ward have all pitched in at crucial times, especially when it comes to keeping a one-goal lead. In the past, the Caps have tried to increase the margin, but it often backfired. they tried to grasp the concept of defense last season, but they seem to finally have a hang of it. It also helps that Holtby has looked like a veteran so far, outdueling last season’s Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas in seven games.

JB: All valid points. There’s no doubt the Caps have developed into a hard working, blue collar team since Hunter took over, and they just so happen to be getting the performances they need from various players – most notably, Holtby as you mentioned. Now the question is, can they get past the top seed New York Rangers? In Game 1, the Rangers outplayed them offensively and physically, and although Holtby is doing well in net for Washington, he now has to outplay one of this year’s Hart Trophy candidates, Henrik Lundqvist, who played stellar turning away 17 shots. While we’ve talked about the Caps being a more balanced unit, counting on depth and defense, I think this is a series where Ovie and the other big guns WILL have to step up and lead the way. Offence will be key in a series with great goaltending, and although Washington’s new style of play has certainly payed off thus far, you need the best of your best players. Now, this still begs the question: are the Washington Capitals finally a playoff team? I’d say they’re well on their way but, I have to go with the Rangers in this series. How about you?

TK: I also believe the Rangers will win this series, but that is not a knock against the Capitals, I just see New York as too strong a team. But that the Caps were able to defeat the Boston Bruins, the defending Stanley Cup Champions and the type of team that had given Washington fits in past playoff years, by being patient and not getting too hung up on a loss. There’s no doubt Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom need to find a way to get through the Rangers’ defense and beat Lundqvist, the role players are an important part of the team and play a huge role, but as the cliche goes, you’re best players need to be your best players. They’ve changed their style of play and while they may not be the exciting run-and-gun team they were a few seasons ago, but they can now last against a suffocating defensive system that would have easily defeated them before. If they can hang with the Rangers and make this a six or seven game series, or even pull off an upset, then that signals to me the Capitals will truly be a team to watch out for in the playoffs in the coming years.

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