The Washington Capitals are not supposed to be here.
Washington barely scraped its way into the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, finishing in second place in what was perceived to be a weak division. Few pundits gave the Capitals much of a chance in their first-round series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
That the Capitals have matched the Bruins goal for goal, save for save, and have a winner-take-all Game 7 with a chance to knock out the champs has been a huge surprise.
That said, the Washington Capitals -- after being anointed a Cup contender after a busy offseason and beginning the 2011-12 campaign with seven straight victories -- are not supposed to be here.
BRUINS VS. CAPITALS
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While the Bruins want to get to the net and create havoc in front of Caps rookie netminder Braden Holtby, the road club will be looking to tighten up its defensive structure. READ MORE ›
The Capitals had won the Southeast Division and earned a top-three seed the past four seasons. When general manager George McPhee added Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik and Tomas Vokoun this summer, the Capitals had one of the best teams in the League on paper.
Had this core group been told in October that they would face another Game 7 in the opening round, there would have been some slumped shoulders. This was a team built to earn one of the top seeds in the conference and contend for a Cup.
"It was a real up and down year. At times it was ... the playoffs weren't in sight, but we had a good finish," defenseman Jeff Schultz said. "Game 7 is Game 7 -- you have to get up for it. It is the most important game of the year so far, and it can be a real confidence booster moving forward."
Once the Capitals began to stumble -- they lost 10 of the last 15 games of the Bruce Boudreau era before a mostly one step forward, one step back approach after Dale Hunter took over -- those expectations changed. There was a point where it looked like Washington might miss out on the postseason for the first time since 2007.
Then when the Capitals did get in -- in part because of the failures of other teams around them -- this looked like a bad matchup. Boston is the defending champ, and the Bruins are built for the postseason -- physical, defensively responsible hockey with great goaltending.
But thanks to a 22-year-old rookie goaltender, a guy who was No. 3 on the organization's depth chart just weeks ago, and a new commitment to playing a style pretty similar to the Bruins', the Capitals have won three times in six games and pushed the defending champs to the brink.
"You can argue that we were maybe underachieving as far as the regular season went, but I think our game has come a long way from where we were at the beginning of the season to the coaching change and new systems and things like that," forward Troy Brouwer said. "Sometimes it is tough to get acclimated to all those changes, but coming into the playoffs there weren't many experts or media who gave us much of a chance against these guys. To be able to have a second game to close this series out, we've played some real good hockey and we have to be proud of where we are now."
"It was a real up and down year. At times it was ... the playoffs weren't in sight, but we had a good finish. Game 7 is Game 7 -- you have to get up for it. It is the most important game of the year so far, and it can be a real confidence booster moving forward."
-- Capitals' defenseman Jeff Schultz
Should it be a loss Wednesday night for the Capitals in Game 7 at TD Garden, then the criticism of a season gone awry will return. This roster is too talented to have stumbled its way to a No. 7 seed and a first-round exit in the postseason.
But should the Capitals knock off the champs and advance to the second round, well, there is a chance for some vindication in a big way. Everything that happened during a tumultuous regular season will seem like long ago if Washington has a chance to make its first deep playoff run since Alex Ovechkin came to town seven years ago.
"Sometimes just getting that first-round victory gives your team and your organization a lot of confidence to go forward and make a run in the playoffs," Brouwer said. "There are times you are just matched up against a team that you just don't match up well with. We've seen it a couple times already with Vancouver and L.A. and Pittsburgh and Philly. If you can make that first step and find your way into the second round, you've seen it a few times that seedings don't matter anymore. As long as you're in and as long as you get hot at the right time."
Added forward Jason Chimera: "We've kind of struggled our way through this year. We kind of found a way to get in. Once you get in, anything can happen. It has been a hard-fought series. Either team could have swept the series, or it could have gone either way pretty quickly because the margin of error has been pretty thin. ... A couple of weeks ago if you had said we'd have a winner-take-all Game 7, I think we would have taken that."