In their sixth consecutive Stanley Cup playoffs, the Capitals find themselves in a familiar position.
The Southeast Division champions are the third seed in the Eastern Conference and have home-ice advantage in their first-round series against the New York Rangers, which opens tonight. It’s the fourth time in five years that the two teams have met in the postseason.
Yet unlike in previous seasons, the Capitals took a far more treacherous road to reach the playoffs. After a horrendous start — the Caps lost nine of their first 11 games — Washington was the worst team in the NHL.
With little to no margin for error in this lockout-shortened season, the Capitals rallied, completing their improbable resurrection last week by clinching their fifth division title since 2008.
Only the conference-leading Penguins and Blackhawks accumulated more points than the Capitals’ 52 since Feb. 8.
Despite entering the postseason as one of the NHL’s hottest teams, the Capitals still believe they’re being underestimated.
“I think everybody kind of sees us as that team that was last in the league a month into the season,” right winger Troy Brouwer said. “Maybe teams and critics aren’t exactly sold on us yet going into the playoffs. We’re fine with that. We had that role last year, and we know we’ve got a good hockey team.”
Last season, the seventh-seeded Capitals relished their rare underdog role, ousting the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins in seven games before taking the top-seeded Rangers to the limit in a seven-game second-round loss.
Without the crushing weight of expectations pressing against them, the Capitals were looser than ever before, thriving in a low-pressure environment that they hope to cultivate once again this spring.
“It worked out for us pretty good last year being underdogs and being underestimated so much,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “So it’s fine by me if it’s the same thing this year.”