Has there ever been a wackier Caps team than the one that will open the playoffs on Thursday night in Boston against the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins?
Washington started 7-0, but soon followed with a 3-7-1 tailspin that cost fourth-year coach Bruce Boudreau his job. When a 1-5 February nosedive seemed to ensure that the Caps would miss the playoffs for the first time since 2007, they won three straight only to start March by being shut out in consecutive games at home for the first time in nearly 11 years.
A 6-2-3 spurt led into the March 27 visit by Buffalo which coach Dale Hunter compared to a playoff Game 7. The Caps responded by being embarrassed, 5-1. With just five games left, they were on the outside looking in at postseason.
So naturally, Washington closed with a 4-1 tear, beating the Bruins in Boston and whipping Southeast Division king Florida and the Eastern Conference champion New York Rangers by a combined 8-3 to claim the seventh seed and that showdown that starts in Beantown.
That dominance happened even though the Caps lost both of their goalies during the finishing kick with veteran Tomas Vokoun re-injuring his groin against the Bruins and youngster Michal Neuvirth apparently wrenching a knee against the Panthers last Thursday.
Suddenly, 22-year-old Braden Holtby, with all of 21 NHL games (none in the playoffs) on his resume, is in line to be between the pipes for at least the start of the Boston series.
Holtby has a sterling .929 save percentage and 2.02 goals-against average during his brief NHL career, but the Bruins certainly have the edge in goal with Tim Thomas, who’ll be 38 next week but won the Vezina (top goalie) and Conn Smythe (playoff MVP) trophies last spring.
Although this season was the Caps’ least successful in five years, they did win three of the four games against the Bruins, including both at the Garden, which has to bolster their hopes of upsetting the second seeds.
Boston still finished with seven more victories and 10 more points than Washington. And the Bruins, whose roster is virtually intact from last spring, certainly know how to win in the playoffs after winning a trio of seven-game series (as well a four-game sweep) to win their first Stanley Cup in 40 years last June.
Oddly, neither Boston nor Washington had a player among the top 20 scorers. The Caps’ Alex Ovechkin, who was fifth with 37 goals, is the only one from either squad among the top 20 in goals or assists.
After going 2-4 as the favorite in playoff series the past four years, it’ll surely be a relief for Washington to be the underdog for the first time since 2003 when Ovechkin was still dreaming of making it in the NHL and Holtby was a 12-year-old in Saskatchewan.
For those lamenting the lack of home-ice advantage, consider that Washington is just 11-22 in the playoffs at MCI/Verizon Center since winning its lone Eastern Conference title back in 1998. The Caps were 10-16 on the road during those same 10 series.
The Ovechkin-led teams of the past four years were 10-11 at home in postseason, 7-9 on the road, so it hasn’t mattered much whether they slept at home or in a hotel the previous night.
If you’re looking for omens, the only previous years in which Washington met Boston in postseason were 1990 when the Caps lost to the Bruins in their first conference finals and 1998 when they reached their only Stanley Cup finals after beating the Bruins in the first round. Following that pattern, this should be the spring that the Caps finally capture the ultimate prize.
Nine months ago, after general manager George McPhee had finished his wheeling and dealing by acquiring 2010 Stanley Cup champion Troy Brouwer and a quartet of 30-somethings: Vokoun, former Caps captain Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik and Joel Ward to give his young team more grit and experience, I praised the new approach, especially since it didn’t require relinquishing any of Washington’s core talent.
After a regular season with more plot twists than a soap opera, all of us, from Caps owner Ted Leonsis on down, will start learning whether McPhee’s idea of building a roster that would perform better come playoff time has paid off in a sweeter spring than Washington’s norm.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.