On paper, the Washington Capitals are underdogs.
They are the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playing against the second-seeded and defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. A Washington series victory would technically be considered an upset.
Of course, games are not played on paper. If that were the case, then the Caps would have been handed the Stanley Cup last summer after making several notable moves between June’s NHL Draft and July’s free agency period. Yet, minus two key injuries in the crease, the Caps are as close to the roster that won them adulation and paper championships during the offseason as they have been all season, which alone gives them more than a fighting chance.
Alex Ovechkin had his second worst statistical season in as many years; Alexander Semin scored the second-fewest goals of his career; Nicklas Backstrom was the team’s leading scorer for 16 games after suffering a concussion January 3; Mike Green continued to be affected by a litany of injuries, from his ankle to his groin; Troy Brouwer and Mathieu Perreault were the only two Caps to record hat tricks; John Carlson fell victim to the “sophomore slump.”
The Caps were certainly underwhelming, but there is a distinct difference between being underwhelming and being an underdog. While the Caps failed to live up to their lofty preseason expectations, they still possess the talent to redeem themselves. Assembled, the aforementioned players and their teammates might arguably be the most talented seventh seed in NHL history. Simply put, it is difficult to saddle the Caps with the “underdog” label.
Yet, there is a distinct advantage in Washington being that seventh seed. When addressing the media Monday, General Manager George McPhee was asked if his core players – Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green, Semin et al. – understood the reasons behind the previous early postseason exits that they have grown accustomed to.
“We may have learned something from the Buffalo game [March 27, a 5-1 loss] and in the playoffs in the past,” McPhee said. “The big games, the games of hype, the players, probably because they’re young, made them too big. It’s better to just follow your normal routine and play. I think we’ve learned the past couple weeks that if we just go out and play we’ll be fine.”
For the first time in three years, the Caps are not considered to be a Stanley Cup favorite entering the postseason. Without the added pressure of those prognostications, Washington can “just go out and play.” The Caps finished the season winners of 10 of their final 16 as they clung to the eighth and final playoff spot in the East and after many had already counted them out. Sixteen more wins while out of the proverbial spotlight are not out of the realm of possibility.
Washington has won several paper championships, but if it were to win the Stanley Cup, it would be anything but a paper champion.