By Adam Vingan
Stay angry. Believe in yourselves.
When the Washington Capitals entered training camp in mid-September, that slogan was emblazoned across every player’s back. While it may have been behind them (literally and figuratively), the Caps were looking forward to a new season and a fresh start. A 54-win season, a President’s Trophy and the NHL’s highest-scoring offense rolled through the 82-game regular season, but lost everything in just seven games after arguably one of the biggest collapses in postseason history. It was right for the Caps to stay angry. Throughout the offseason and beyond, pundits and figureheads alike decreed that what the Caps do during the regular season was a moot point. Seven months later, the Caps find themselves in the same place that they did one year ago: on top of the Eastern Conference. And for the second time in three years, Washington has a first-round date with the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
The Rangers, who missed the playoffs in their final game of the season last year, clinched a playoff spot in their final game of the season this year. By defeating the New Jersey Devils 5-2, coupled with the Carolina Hurricanes’ 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Rangers find themselves facing the Caps for the sixth time in the postseason. The Caps hold a 3-2 edge in overall playoff series victories, but the last time wasn’t easy. The Caps (in a mirror image of last season’s series with the Montreal Canadiens) trailed 3-1, but won three consecutive games to take the series in seven games.
This season, the Caps did not have it easy with the Rangers, either. In four games against New York, the Caps went 1-2-1 and were outscored 18-6, including a 7-0 drubbing that HBO’s “24/7” miniseries prominently featured.
That may have been the lowest point of the season for the Caps, but it would happen again February 25 in a 6-0 loss. Much like their playoff series two seasons ago, the Rangers took their physicality right to the Caps, blocking shots and throwing their bodies around at will. Mike Green was a casualty of such play. Henrik Lundqvist would earn two of his career-high and league-leading 11 shutouts against the Caps.
New York features nine double-digit goal scorers, but one of them, Ryan Callahan, is out for the rest of the season after suffering a leg injury. The return of captain Chris Drury will provide the Rangers with solid leadership to go along with a healthy mix of grit (Sean Avery, Brian Boyle) and finesse (Marian Gaborik, Brandon Dubinsky, Derek Stepan). A young defensive corps, led by Marc Staal, will attempt to shut down the Caps yet again.
As mentioned before, many believed that what the Caps did in the regular season didn’t matter. This season, however, it did. The Caps faced adversity that they had never seen before (an eight-game losing streak), responded (a nine-game winning streak), brought in the right pieces (Scott Hannan, Marco Sturm, Dennis Wideman and Jason Arnott) to bring experience to a fresh-faced roster and clicked at the best possible time. Washington is 16-3-1 since their 6-0 loss to the Rangers and are arguably the hottest team in the league entering the playoffs. The Caps stayed angry and are hungry. If the Rangers (or any other team in the playoffs, for that matter) are not scared of this team, they should be. For New York, the good news is is that they qualified for the playoffs and will face the Caps. The bad news is is that they will face the Caps.
We walk alone in the unknown. We live to win another victory. We are the young, dying sons. We live to change the face of history. Don’t be afraid. It’s the price we pay. The only easy day was yesterday. So hear our voice. We have a choice. It’s time to face it.
The Capitals skated onto the ice at Verizon Center for 41 games while 12 Stones’ “We Are One” blared throughout. For at least 16 more games, the Capitals must heed that advice. It’s time to face it.