At so many points during the 2012-13 season, there were opportunities to count the Washington Capitals out.
There was a new coach and a new system, and the shortened training camp meant little time for everything to come together. None of the team's defensemen played during the lockout. A key forward, Brooks Laich, was injured during it.
It all added up to an awful start. The Capitals started 1-5-1, then 2-8-1, then 5-10-1 and finally a three-game skid after it looked like things were getting better left Washington at 10-14-1. Three weeks into the season, the website sportsclubstats.com listed the Capitals' odds at 2.16 percent. Five weeks later, their odds were still only at 9.58 percent.
Since that point, the Capitals have been one of the hottest teams in the League, racking up points at a rate reminiscent to the dominance seen in Chicago and Pittsburgh. Washington is 16-4-1 since a 4-0 loss March 12 to Carolina left them at 10-14-1, and 14-2-1 since arriving in Winnipeg for back-to-back games at MTS Centre in late March.
The Capitals completed an improbable comeback and clinched the Southeast Division with a 5-3 win against the Winnipeg Jets at the Verizon Center on Tuesday. How were they able to pull it off? Here's a look at five of the biggest reasons why the Capitals will take part in the postseason for the sixth straight season:
1. Welcome back, Alex: Alex Ovechkin's offensive output slipped in each of the past two seasons after four 50-goal, 100-point seasons in his first five years. His numbers dipped even further in the opening weeks of this season, and Ovechkin was crushed by national media members for being a shadow of his former dynamic self.
Well, a lot has changed in the past five weeks. Ovechkin spent the first half of the season adjusting to playing a new position (right wing), and since he was reunited with his typical running mate of the past five seasons, Nicklas Backstrom, in mid-March, the results have been astounding. Ovechkin has 21 goals and 32 points in the past 21 games. He leads the League with 31 goals in 46 games, which puts him on a 54-goal pace in an 82-game season.
He and Backstrom have been a dominant duo again. Backstrom is third in the NHL with 40 assists, including 22 in the past 21 contests. Even young Marcus Johansson, who appeared to be regressing earlier in the season, has clicked as the third member of the team's top line with 19 points in those 21 games.
2. Reaping what Oates is sowing: Oates was the team's third coach in a little more than a year, and he brought a distinctly different attitude and philosophy than his predecessor, Dale Hunter. It took a while for the Capitals to completely digest Oates' style of play and systems, but what has occurred in the past five weeks is almost certainly what general manager George McPhee envisioned -- a meeting in the middle of Bruce Boudreau's aggressive ideals and Hunter's passive tendencies.
The new coach has fixed the power play (more on that in a bit), fixed his superstar, helped create more secondary scoring and maybe most importantly communicated with players in a way Hunter rarely did. With Boudreau it was, 'does this team play enough defense?' With Hunter it was, 'does this team play too much defense?' During this incredible run, the Capitals have just played hockey, and played it well with a balance between the two. Oates deserves plenty of credit for that.
3. Power up: Only three teams have finished a season with a power-play proficiency rate of at least 25 percent since 1998 -- the Detroit Red Wings did so in 2008-09 and the Washington Capitals did it that season and the following one. In recent seasons the Capitals have slipped, including an 18th-place finish at 16.7 percent a year ago, which is almost unfathomable considering the amount of talent assembled in Washington.
Oates was considered a power-play guru during his time as an assistant with Tampa Bay and New Jersey, and that has translated well during his first season in charge of his own team. The Capitals lead the League at 26.1 percent, and Ovechkin has scored 16 times with the extra-man, one less than the Boston Bruins have as a team and three fewer than three other teams.
It has been a long time since a team finished a season at 26 percent on the power play -- even the offensive machine that was the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins (109 power-play goals, second most all-time) finished that year at 25.96 percent.
The addition of Mike Ribiero to distribute along with Backstrom has been a revelation for Ovechkin and the power play, as has a return to form by defenseman Mike Green, who is second in the NHL in goals by a defenseman despite missing 13 games.
4. Stability in net: Provided he remains healthy in the final week of the season, Braden Holtby can become the first goaltender to start Games 1 and 2 in the first round in back-to-back seasons for the Washington Capitals during the Ovechkin era. The list includes Cristobal Huet, Jose Theodore, Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth -- none of them were able to hold the No. 1 job for an entire opening round (let alone postseason run) for two consecutive years.
Holtby was thrust into the role last year because of injuries to Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun. This season started horribly for Holtby, much like most of his teammates, but his play has rounded into form during this stretch and is the unquestioned No. 1 guy as the postseason beckons.
The Capitals really haven't had that in the past six years. It is the type of stability that could help the team go a long way.
5. Last ride in the Southeast: There is no denying the Capitals have been a dominant club for the past five weeks, but all of this comes with a caveat. Even with their incredible 21-game run, this fifth division title in six years is not possible without the corresponding nosedives by the Jets and Carolina Hurricanes.
Carolina was poised to run away with the Southeast after beating Washington in that mid-March contest, and the Hurricanes took a lead on the Capitals in the first game of this 21-contest march. A Capitals comeback sent the teams (with an assist of some crippling injuries for Carolina) in opposite directions. A week later the Jets appeared to be poised to run away with the division, but the Capitals crushed them in back-to-back games at MTS Centre.
While Winnipeg has recovered for a late playoff push, the damage was done. Carolina had a 10-point lead on Washington after that March 12 win. The Jets had a nine-point lead on the Capitals before those back-to-back tilts in Winnipeg. Both collapsed, at least for a while, after those clashes and allowed the Capitals to roar back and claim a division title that did not seem possible five weeks ago.
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