Six weeks ago, there seemed to be only two questions worth asking about the Washington Capitals: Would they trade pending unrestricted free agent Mike Ribeiro, and what top prospect would they select in the 2013 NHL Draft?
Halfway through the 2012-13 season, the Capitals were almost cooked. They finished the first half at 10-13-1, then proceeded to get smoked by the Carolina Hurricanes, who pushed their lead in the Southeast Division to 10 points with a 4-0 win against Washington on March 12.
Since then, the Capitals have been lighting up the Eastern Conference. They went 17-4-2 to finish the regular season, claiming the division title for a fifth time in six seasons (in part because Carolina and the Winnipeg Jets faltered), and no team outside of the Pittsburgh Penguins enters the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the East with as much momentum.
This will be Alex Ovechkin and Co.'s sixth crack at the postseason puzzle. They've not been able to reach the second half of the tournament in their first five tries. Here are five questions that could determine if the sixth time will be a success:
1. Can the Capitals beat the good teams when it really matters?
It is no secret Washington padded its point total by beating up on the weak teams in the East. While those who run the franchise will be happy to see old Patrick Division rivals in the same division again after realignment, they might miss their Southeast foes as well.
Washington went 15-3-0 against the Southeast and ended up its only member to reach the postseason; the Capitals went 12-15-3 against the other two divisions. The Capitals started the season 2-12-0 against the other seven teams in the playoff field before rallying to finish 7-12-1. In games against playoff teams that finished in regulation (contests that were decided at 5-on-5), the Capitals were 3-12-0.
They're going to have to prove this late-season surge was more about their improvement as a team than the softness of the schedule.
2. Can they forget about past failures?
Guess what players on teams that have lost a bunch of years in a row in the playoffs get asked about a lot once the postseason begins? The Capitals have made the postseason five straight years, have reached the second round three times but never made it to the conference finals.
They've lost in overtime at home in Game 7. They've been routed on home ice in Game 7. They've been felled by the proverbial David at home in Game 7. They've been shockingly swept away after a great first round. They've pushed two superior teams to the limit by playing coin-flip hockey before watching it turn up heads once and tails once.
There is a core group of players in Washington that has "seen it all" in the playoffs, and once adversity arrives this year, any and all of their previous experiences will be brought up again.
3. Is the defense deep enough?
Mike Green is an offensive dynamo again, with 12 goals and 26 points in 35 games played. Karl Alzner and John Carlson have earned their place as legitimate top-four defensemen and tend to play well in the postseason.
Beyond those three is where the issues lay for the Capitals. John Erskine, 32, has played more minutes per game this season than any other in his NHL career. Steve Oleksy is a great story, but he's also a 27-year-old rookie who will play his first Stanley Cup Playoffs game this week. Jack Hillen had 230 NHL games in the regular season before 2013, but only two more playoff appearances than Oleksy.
The top three can match up with just about anybody. The play of the bottom three could be the key to how far Washington can advance.
4. Will the discipline problems flare up again?
Part of what hurt the Capitals early in the season was their penchant for putting themselves in penalty-killing situations. They took copious penalties in the first few weeks of the season, and teams made them pay.
The PK has been much better of late, but it still ranks near the bottom of the League. What's worse, some of the penalties could easily be avoided. The team, Ribeiro in particular, has picked up several penalties for arguing with officials or for after-the-whistle violence -- something opposing teams will certainly try to bait them to do.
5. Can Braden Holtby do it again?
Outside of Washington, before the start of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Holtby was a known quantity to American Hockey League fans and draftniks who enjoy following the progress of prospects. He became a breakout star last spring with an incredible two-round effort. While the team played so many close games, he was a calming influence and poised far beyond his years.
If he can be steady and at times spectacular again, this Capitals team could find a way into the conference finals when others could not.