The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Reasons for Capitals fans to be optimistic, and sobering facts to bring you back to Earth

Braden Holtby is the league’s reigning Vezina Trophy winner. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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We all know the decade-long narrative for the Washington Capitals: They’re a talented team that can’t get past the second round. Why is this year different? Here are five reasons to be optimistic about the team’s Stanley Cup chances, and because this is the Capitals, the five reasons to be pessimistic:

1. Braden Holtby

In a seven-game series, the ability for a goaltender to steal a game is crucial. Going into his third straight postseason as the Capitals’ top netminder, Holtby has consistently done his part in these situations. In 12 postseason games last year, Holtby had a .942 save percentage and a 1.72 goals-against average. The season before, he had a .944 save percentage and a 1.71 goals-against average. This was another Vezina Trophy-caliber season for him, and while it’s always possible the Capitals run into a hot goalie in the playoffs, they also know they have one in their net, too.

Svrluga: Safety in net: Braden Holtby brings stability where Capitals once had uncertainty

2. Going in on a good note

Washington’s big standings lead last season arguably hurt the team. With nothing to play for down the stretch of the season, the Capitals’ play slipped and they lost five of their past seven games. As the team reflected on its second-round loss to the Penguins, players admitted they weren’t as sharp as they needed to be going into the playoffs. With the Metropolitan Division so competitive this season, Washington was in a tight race until the end, and the Capitals now feel more prepared for postseason hockey. They won 11 of their last 14 regular-season games.

3. Defensive depth

General Manager Brian MacLellan sent a message that the Capitals were all-in when he acquired defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk before the trade deadline. A puck-moving, right-shot blue-liner, Shattenkirk was the biggest prize available, and he’s bolstered a Washington defense that was already allowing the fewest goals per game. Though Shattenkirk is on a third pairing with Brooks Orpik, he could play in a top-four role if Washington ran into an injury or a player was suspended, as was the case with Orpik last postseason. Nate Schmidt, pushed out of the lineup with the addition of Shattenkirk, has impressed when he’s stepped in. He and Dmitry Orlov are entering their second playoffs, and that experience should benefit both.

At Verizon Center, four teams, three playing surfaces, two playoffs and one busy crew

4. Fresh legs

Capitals Coach Barry Trotz reduced the minutes of some of his star players during the season to give them more energy in the spring. Alex Ovechkin averaged a career-low 18:22 ice time, down two minutes from last season. Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie had their lowest ice times since their rookie seasons. The strategy seemed to work: All three ended the regular season on a high note. In the final 10 games, Backstrom and Ovechkin had eight points, Oshie had seven.

“We play maybe 15, 16 minutes half the season and then we play 18, 20 minutes the second half of the season,” Ovechkin said. “I think right now we’re in better shape than we was last year and mentally wise, as well, because you can see we have four lines who can create and four lines who can be out there and get the job done, it doesn’t matter which situation.”

5. Secondary scoring

Washington had the third-ranked offense in the league with 3.18 goals per game, and the scoring came from all over the lineup. Every forward but Tom Wilson finished with a double-digit goal total, a testament to the Capitals’ depth. Last season, the third line was unable to contribute offensively at the rate that Pittsburgh’s did. With the additions of center Lars Eller and winger Brett Connolly, Washington is expected to have more secondary scoring in the playoffs.

And for the pessimists …

1. History

This isn’t the first time the Capitals are entering the playoffs with the best regular-season record and favored to win the Stanley Cup. In 2010, Washington lost to Montreal in the first round, and last year, the Capitals ran into a hot Pittsburgh team in the second round. Pittsburgh went on to win the Stanley Cup, and Washington went another year without advancing to the conference final. Until the Capitals are able to translate regular-season dominance into postseason success, their past will haunt them.

Svrluga: Safety in net: Braden Holtby brings stability where Capitals once had uncertainty

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov was a non-factor in the playoffs last year

The Capitals are considerably tougher to play against when Kuznetsov is playing well. The center was Washington’s leading scorer a season ago with 77 points, but he had just one goal and one assist in 12 postseason games  year ago. When he’s playing well, the second-line center can usually exploit working with a slightly easier matchup than Washington’s top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom. If he goes into a slump as he did last year, the Capitals may not have the secondary scoring needed for a deep playoff run.

3. John Carlson’s questionable health

Carlson averages the most minutes on Washington’s defense, but his health has been a question mark all season. After playing for Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey before the season, he came back nicked up and got off to a slow start. In the middle of the season, he missed six games with an undisclosed lower-body injury, then missed the last three games of the regular season with an undisclosed lower-body injury that may or may not be related to the earlier one. If Carlson, an all-situations defenseman who plays against top competition, isn’t fully healthy, that hurts the Capitals’ chances.

At Verizon Center, four teams, three playing surfaces, two playoffs and one busy crew

4. The divisional playoff format

Though the Capitals finished with the league’s best record, they might have to play the second- or third-best team in the Eastern Conference in the second round. If Washington gets past Toronto, it will play the winner of a Pittsburgh-Columbus series, and that second-round matchup could be more competitive than the conference final. Pittsburgh has dealt with injuries, but finished the season with 111 points and the NHL’s top-ranked offense. The Blue Jackets had 108 points and allowed the second-fewest points per game.

5. Luck

Washington has been undoubtedly fortunate this season, and it’s fair to wonder whether that will change. The Capitals have largely avoided serious injuries; the longest absence by one player was the 15 games missed by Andre Burakovsky (broken hand). Several players are also riding career-high shooting percentages, which is typically unsustainable and could regress. Oshie scored 33 goals during the regular season, but he has a league-leading 23.1 shooting percentage. Connolly has 15 goals and is scoring on 18.5 percent of his shots, and Marcus Johansson is riding an 18.6 shooting percentage.