It’s the day before the playoffs begin — a Capitals postseason that remained in doubt until a week ago — and every player on the ice is hydroplaning at game speed. As final prep for the defending Stanley Cup champions in Boston goes, it’s so fast and intense.
Alexander Semin is checked into the glass, his contorted face pressed within three inches of your eyes. A penalty-killing simulation feels like the real deal as the puck is blasted into the boards at upwards of 80 mph.
But the biggest difference between now and 2009 to 2011? The smiles. They’re everywhere. The ease in their steps as they leave the ice. From 20-year-old Cody Eakin, who would die happy if he got his first NHL playoff shift, to Mike Knuble, a proud captain trying to play his way back onto a line at 39, it seems contagious.
Everybody who remembers the past three years before Game 1 of the first round says the mood was lighter this time, the locker room more jovial. No President’s Trophy to validate like in 2009. No chance of Barry Melrose or Don Cherry proclaiming on television, “Without a doubt, the Washington Capitals will be raising the Stanley Cup come June.”
No pressure this time. Just playoffs, something no one around here takes for granted anymore.
“We’re not going in as one of the No. 1 seeds like the Caps have been the past few years, that’s true,” Matt Hendricks said. “But we still have high expectations of ourselves in here, this group. We feel like we’re a team that can vie for the Cup. And that’s our goal.”
Added Jay Beagle: “I don’t really consider us an underdog. Especially going into this series, just because we did well against Boston this year. I know it’s regular season and now it’s playoffs. But you know, I don’t really consider us underdogs. Obviously with the regular reason, with the ups and downs, we didn’t finish where we wanted to finish. But it’s a whole new season now.”
This must be what it feels like to play with house money in April. This must be what Montreal felt in 2010 when it pulled off a shocker over top-seeded Washington en route to meeting the seventh-seeded Flyers in the all-Cinderella Eastern Conference finals.
Hey, if it can be done anywhere in big-revenue North American team sports, it can be done in hockey.
Just three times in the last 11 years has one of the NBA’s No. 1 or 2 seeds been upset in the first round. That’s the extreme, but in general the best regular season teams often advance to the conference finals or league championship and almost always the next round. Except in hockey.
In the NHL playoffs, monster upsets are the norm. In the last 11 years, only three times have hockey’s No. 1 and 2 seeds on each side of the bracket made it out of the first round unscathed. Beyond the Caps in 2010 and 2000, when they were seeded second and lost to the No. 7 Penguins, Ottawa, San Jose and Detroit have been stunned as No. 1 or 2 seeds in the postseason.
Since 1990, the NBA has had just eight champions. During the same time frame in the NHL — minus a year for labor stoppage — there have been 14 champions and just two back-to-back winners, the Penguins in 1991 and 1992 and the Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.
Even compared to the parity-rich NFL, nowhere but in the NHL can underachieving regular season teams say with more conviction, “If we’re in, we can win.”
Two years ago the Caps became the first No. 1 seed in the history of the NHL to blow a 3-1 series lead in the first round. They were beat by a goaltender named Jaroslav Halak, who miraculously stopped 141 of 144 shots he faced the final three games. Before Halak did cartwheels in front of the net to stone Washington, he was as popular in elite goalie circles as, well, Braden Holtby, the Caps’ rookie forced to start in net Thursday night in Boston against an offensive juggernaut featuring four 60-point scorers and a tireless and tenacious defenseman who stands nearly 7 feet in skates.
That the Caps have only one 60-point scorer, Alex Ovechkin, two years after entering the playoffs with three of the league’s top 13 scorers is major culture shock, no? Really, how did Ovi and the boys become the team winding up against Goliath when it used to be the other way around?
If this were the NCAA tournament, Kentucky just morphed into UNC Asheville. The Great Eight now captains a Dale Hunter-coached team that likes to call itself “the Grinders.”
As incongruent and implausible as that sounds after so many 6-2 victories and highlight goals for much of the past five years, it might be necessary.
First- and second-line stars rarely play into June if they don’t have third- and fourth-line role players who occasionally become stars each April.
To beat Boston, Hendricks, Beagle, Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer and Jason Chimera have to become as valuable as Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Semin. Holtby might have to be Halak, circa 2010.
Essentially, the team once known as “the Greatest Show on Ice” now needs to be the grittiest and the grimiest to see what it feels like to be on the right end of an opening-round shocker.
Then, who knows? As Alan May, the Comcast SportsNet analyst and former player, said, “I think the Caps are a No. 1 seed in disguise.”
Can this long, bumpy ride that began in October, featured a coaching change and a seat-of-the-pants thrill ride to even become eligible for the postseason, end with the absolutely improbable? Does anyone see Washington genuinely winning the Stanley Cup this postseason?
“I do,” Hendricks said.
Standing in front of his locker space Wednesday, speaking less cocky and more matter-of-factly, he clarified the thought:
“I think we’ve got a lot of great skill players,” he said. “I think we’ve got a great mix of guys. I can’t say 100 percent what adversity does to a player, but I know in life adversity usually helps you out.”
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.