In the words of Capitals coach Barry Trotz, Alex Ovechkin was “on a mission” this postseason. At age 32, he scored a team-record 15 playoff goals, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and has been celebrating as only he could. The captain’s attention to detail produced a more complete game, according to general manager Brian MacLellan. But Ovechkin’s maturation was just one of a number of changes this spring that finally let the Capitals triumph after years of premature playoff exits.
Develop a killer instinct
Former Capitals forward Justin Williams, a three-time Stanley Cup winner, often said that championship teams know how to “seize the moment,” how to sense opportunities as they happen, not in retrospect. The issue with previous Caps teams, Williams believed, was a tendency to let big moments slip away. This year’s Capitals had no such problem. This spring, Washington became the third champion in NHL history to clinch all four series on the road. In nine previous postseasons, the Caps were just 6-15 in potential series-clinching games and twice blew 3-1 leads (2010, 2015). When the Caps built a 3-1 lead in the finals, coach Barry Trotz was asked about that history. “I don’t think we were mentally in the place we are now,” he said. “We’re a totally different team.”
Become immune to adversity
The 2018 Capitals may have been the most resilient team in the Ovechkin era, becoming just the second team to win the Cup after trailing in all four series. The Caps tied an NHL record with 10 road wins in the playoffs, climbed out of a 2-0 hole in Round 1 and eliminated the Penguins in Round 2 despite playing Game 6 without Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson. Their lineup that night featured five rookies, including two making their postseason debuts. Washington avoided elimination in the East finals thanks to shutouts by Braden Holtby in Games 6 and 7. The whole run was a far cry from 2010, when the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals had a 3-1 series lead on the Canadiens but let a rerouted flight from Montreal and a night stranded on the tarmac in Baltimore disrupt their momentum.
Stack talent at center
Stability down the middle eluded the Capitals earlier this decade with a revolving cast of centers playing behind stalwart Nicklas Backstrom. The Capitals won one playoff series from 2010 through 2014, relying on a collection of rentals that included Brendan Morrison, Eric Belanger, Jason Arnott, Mike Ribeiro and Mikhail Grabovski. None spent more than a season in D.C. By contrast, this year’s team had the depth to weather the loss of Backstrom for four playoff games. Evgeny Kuznetsov was the postseason’s leading scorer with 32 points in 24 games. Lars Eller came through with a double-overtime game-winner against Columbus and the series clincher against Vegas. Veteran Jay Beagle had the finest postseason faceoff rate (60.1 percent) of any player who took at least 125 draws.
Stash scorers in reserve
Last year, Lars Eller, Jay Beagle and Daniel Winnik were all held without a goal in 13 playoff games. Brett Connolly, who had a career-high 15 goals that season, was held pointless in seven postseason games and was eventually scratched. In seven games against the Penguins that year, not one bottom-six forward scored for the Capitals. In this year’s second-round series against Pittsburgh, nine Caps forwards scored, and five had multiple goals. Devante Smith-Pelly, who had seven goals in the regular season, scored three in six finals games. Eller (seven goals) and Connolly (six goals) rebounded from last year’s paltry postseason totals. Rookie Jakub Vrana opened the scoring in the Capitals’ Cup-clinching Game 5 win. Fellow rookie Chandler Stephenson played all 24 playoff games and scored two goals with seven points.