playoff preview 2024

They’re back, and they’re different.

After successfully navigating their way through one of the most mercurial regular seasons in recent memory – a season that was referred to as a “rollercoaster” by more than one player – the Capitals are returning to the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring. The Caps overcame a great deal of adversity over the last six months, and they still managed to squeeze their way into the playoffs, doing so in Game 82 of the regular season, and becoming the 16th of the 16 teams seeking the 16 wins needed to hoist the Cup.

As the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, the Caps will face the Presidents’ Trophy-winning New York Rangers in the first round of the 2024 Stanley Cup playoffs, the 10th time the two teams have met in the postseason; the first was 1986 and the most recent was 2015. This spring marks the sixth time the Caps have faced the Blueshirts in the playoffs during the Alex Ovechkin era, the most postseason meetings between the Caps and any foe over those 19 seasons.

It’s only been two years since the Caps’ last playoff appearance, but the landscape has changed a fair bit in these parts during that period of time. Washington’s remaining core from its 2018 Stanley Cup championship team is down to just four players: Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson, T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson. Those four players and four others – Nic Dowd, Nick Jensen, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Martin Fehervary – are the only remaining players who suited up for Game 1 of Washington’s first-round playoff series against Florida on May 3, 2022.

The prior time the Ovechkin-era Caps had a season away from the playoffs – they missed in 2013-14 – there were still a dozen players from Washington’s 2013 playoff team that suited up for the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs. The Caps’ 2024 playoff crew is the most different from one playoff appearance to the next during the Ovechkin era in D.C., and Washington’s coaching staff is also different; the Caps started this season with several new faces on their staff, led by first-time NHL head coach Spencer Carbery.

Flanked by first-year assistants Mitch Love and Kirk Muller as well as skills coach Kenny McCudden, Carbery and the holdover portion of the coaching staff found their footing together early, and they showed an ability to laser in on each individual game, pulling the strings and pushing the buttons that would give the Caps their best chance to win that particular game against that particular foe on that particular night.

“I thought our chemistry from very early on was exceptional, just getting a feel for each other’s personalities and coming together,” says Carbery of his staff. “And I always find this, and I thought that this is probably the best compliment that I can pay our staff, is that I find the players feed off the staff’s energy, and how they interact on a daily basis – when you’re in and around the locker room, when you’re in the lunchroom, when you’re on the airplane, when you’re on the road, when you’re on the bench – in all these different areas where your players feed off of what you guys project.

“And I thought from an energy, enthusiasm, positivity [standpoint], and also very highly motivated people that are trying to get better every day and help others get better, I thought it was a great mix, and being able to come together with a lot of new faces on the staff very quickly.”

For the veteran core players, this spring marks another opportunity to pursue hockey’s holy grail. And for the ever-increasing number of young players on the Washington roster, it’s a chance to prove their playoff mettle at a higher level; many of them claimed the Calder Cup with the AHL Hershey Bears last spring.

“I was thinking back to when I first came into the playoffs, and then making the playoffs almost every year since,” says Caps’ right wing Tom Wilson. “The veteran guys definitely led the way, which gives the young guys the ability to earn experience early on in their career.

“What I was excited about this year as a veteran guy, was just being able to get this team into the playoffs so that the kids that came in – like I did – can get some experience at the most meaningful time of year; there’s nothing better. Whether it’s this year that we make a run, or next year that we make a run, or two or three years from now we make a run, every playoff game is great experience.

“I think this one felt good for the guys that have been there, and have been in the playoffs a lot, because we were getting a young group in, and the young guys came up and did such a good job. It just felt exciting. We were kind of down and out, and then we got in, and now there’s going to be a whole new chapter for these young guys, and another new chapter for the core guys.”

This year’s model of the Capitals has been through a lot together. And of the 20 guys who suited up to eke out a 2-1 win over the Flyers on Tuesday in Philly to push the Caps into the playoffs, eight of them weren’t in uniform or in the lineup when the season opened six months earlier, with a 4-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Washington.

Things have not only changed since the Caps last played playoff hockey just under two years ago, they’ve changed since opening night.

The Caps started the ’23-24 season by going into their sixth game of the campaign before holding a scoreboard lead at any point, yet they still pulled three points (1-3-1) during those first five games. From necessity, they began to find ways of winning without scoring very much, a trait that would serve them well throughout the season. In more than half – 44 of 82 – of their games, the Caps scored two or fewer goals. Yet they still managed to wring 29 of their 91 standings points from those games, posting an 11-26-7 record.

On Nov. 1, longtime franchise center Nicklas Backstrom “stepped away from the game” just eight games into the season. A night later against the Islanders, Connor McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre were both holding down center slots in the Washington lineup, something the Caps are hopeful of seeing several hundreds of times over the years to come.

“One thing about the American League,” said McMichael back in early November. “It gets kind of underrated, and some people view it as a punishment. But for me, when I went down there, I was able to play my natural position, and I was playing on the power play and the penalty kill. If I hadn’t gone through all of that with Hershey last year, I might still be in a standstill here, which is where I was at this time last year.”

For the last 25 games of the season, McMichael and Lapierre were both in the lineup together. Both players saw their ice time and responsibilities increase as the season wore on, and both handled it well, though both scuffled to score late, as did many of their teammates. Even with one goal in his last 10 games, McMichael finished the season with 18, tied for third on the team. Lapierre totaled six goals and 15 points in those final 25 regular season games

Beck Malenstyn and Aliaksei Protas, two other members of the 2023 Calder Cup champion Bears team, were key contributors on the wing for Washington throughout the season. All four have established themselves as bona fide NHL players going forward.

From late October right up to the NHL’s holiday break in late December, the Caps played some of their best hockey of the season. From Oct. 25-Dec. 23, they posted a 16-6-4 mark over the near equivalent of a third of an 82-game slate.

But they hit the skids coming out of the break, falling into a prolonged tailspin that tumbled them from playoff contention. Washington won five of its 18 games (5-11-2) from Dec. 27, 2023 to Feb. 8, 2024, and it entered its Feb. 10 game in Boston with a six-game slide (0-5-1).

And coming out of the All-Star break just days before that Boston game, the Caps received the news that they’d be without center Evgeny Kuznetsov for an indefinite period of time. Kuznetsov had entered the NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance Program after the Caps’ Jan. 27 game in Dallas.

At that point of the season, it was difficult to discern who the real Caps were. Were they the 16-6-4 group, or were they the 5-11-2 bunch?

Starting that Saturday afternoon in Boston – in the second game of the two-game Mentors’ Trip – the real Caps came to the fore. Charlie Lindgren blanked the Bruins – a team that entered the game with a 51-9-6 home ice record since the start of last season – on just 18 shots to halt the skid.

“Our most complete game of the year, hands down, start to finish, in all the different areas that we needed to be dialed in, and we were,” said Carbery after the win in Boston. “And our structure, we were so connected with everything that we did in all three zones. It was an impressive effort today.”

The Caps managed to build off that effort, and starting with that win in Beantown, they put together a 14-6-2 stretch that showed who they are and what they are, and they even averaged 3.55 goals per game during that span, eighth best in the NHL.

Midway through that stretch, ahead of the March 8 trade deadline, the Caps shipped out a trio of players without bringing back any players in return; the trades of Kuznetsov, Anthony Mantha and Joel Edmundson brought back only future draft picks. In taking over 1,700 games worth of experience out of its lineup, Washington replaced those three skaters with in-house options with far less experience.

Being a “seller” at the deadline and going on to make the playoffs is a difficult feat to pull off, but it’s a significant accomplishment for the Caps. Washington was able to get some assets in return for a couple of players who were impending free agents and another who clearly needed a change in scenery, and they were still able to make the playoffs, where their young players will get at least a taste of playoff hockey at the highest level.

Days after the deadline, the Caps departed for a five-game road trip that most figured would make or break their season. After falling 3-0 in Winnipeg and 7-2 in Edmonton to start the trip, the Caps rallied back with a massive 2-1 win in Seattle on the second of back-to-backs, getting the game-winning goal on a McMichael breakaway. They finished the trip with wins in Vancouver and Calgary, and when they flew home on March 19, they were in a playoff spot for the first time in 77 days.

But there was more adversity just around the corner. Dylan Strome’s overtime goal delivered a critical win over Detroit on March 26, again putting the Caps into playoff position in a battle with several other teams. But a lopsided loss in Toronto followed, then a home ice shootout setback to the Bruins to close out March. April started with losses at Buffalo and a home loss to Pittsburgh, and then an excruciating road setback to Carolina that left Washington with five straight losses (0-4-1) at the worst time of the season. With six games to go, the Caps were in 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings, and they had surrendered control of their playoff fate.

Heading into their last half dozen games, the Caps were again having offensive difficulties. They had scored just eight goals during the life of their five-game slide, and they had yielded more than 40 shots on net in the loss to Carolina. The Capitals needed to revert to their early season magic of winning games with minimal offense.

A 3-2 overtime loss to Ottawa extended their skid to six, and they headed to Detroit to play the first of their last five games of the season, in a grueling span of eight nights. Lindgren, with another magnificent performance, made 42 saves in a 2-1 victory over the Red Wings; he came within two seconds of a shutout. Strome and Ovechkin supplied the offense, scoring minutes apart late in the second period.

An excruciating loss in Buffalo followed, again taking the Caps out of the playoff picture with just three games remaining. Playing without two of their top three defensemen – Rasmus Sandin and Nick Jensen – the Caps swept Tampa Bay and Boston, respectively, in a two-game homestand to regain control of their postseason destiny, setting up the last game of the regular season – and the second game of a back-to-back set in Philadelphia, a “win and you’re in” game against the Flyers, who were – along with Washington – one of four teams still alive for the one remaining playoff berth.

It was a wild finish in Philly. With the game tied at 1-1 late in the third, the Flyers pulled their goaltender in an effort to engineer a regulation win, the only scenario under which they could make the playoffs. When Oshie scored into an empty net with exactly three minutes remaining, the Caps were able to eke out yet another 2-1 win, and this one would vault them into the playoffs.

The Caps won three straight to finish the season, doing so with three defensemen – Alex Alexeyev, Vincent Iorio and Dylan McIlrath – who each have 75 or fewer games worth of regular season NHL experience.

The combination of jubilation and relief at the achievement was something to see. Everyone but themselves, it seemed, had counted them out, whether in September, December, February, April, or any other juncture of the season.

“That’s not how we drew it up,” jokes Caps’ left wing Max Pacioretty of the crazy finish. “That being said, there wasn’t a time in my mind – even going back to the trade deadline – where I thought we wouldn’t make the playoffs. This group has believed the whole time.

“We like spurts of the games we’ve put together, and we know that we can play against top teams. We have a lot of veterans in this room, which, in my mind, is a big reason why we’re still sitting here today. There is a real calmness to these guys – Johnny, Osh, O, Willie – they’ve been in this situation before and it has a trickle-down effect throughout the lineup.”

For the vets, there will be another postseason opportunity, another chance to make a meaningful run. For the group of younger players who pitched in from opening night through game 82 to help make this happen, there will be a first taste of Stanley Cup playoff hockey this spring, and a chance to see what that’s like, even while they’re still savoring the championship they earned last spring.

“Just getting to where we've gotten is very, very valuable for development,” says Carbery, of the value to his younger players. “But now, now you want to make good on it. Now, we don't want to be just, ‘Okay, great.’ We want to play well. We want to put our best foot forward. And everybody's going to say that we've got no business being here, the goal differential, and blah, blah, blah. That's going to be the narrative, and that's fine. It's warranted; it's a fact.

“But we don't [want to] and I know this group isn't just going to be content showing up in the Stanley Cup playoffs. We want to go and put our best foot forward, show what we're capable of doing as a group, to play well in all these games, right up to our standard. And if that's good enough to win some games and knock off an opponent, we'll find out.”

The thrill ride of a regular season is over, and the 35 different players who wore a Washington sweater this season combined to pull it off – the Caps are back in the postseason. When it ended, eight members of Hershey’s 2023 Calder Cup championship team were on the Caps’ roster, and each had made a positive impact and had helped to seal crucial victories along the way.

“You know what it says about this organization?” said Carbery in the aftermath of the victory in Philadelphia. “It says that we’re drafting and bringing people in that are gamers. You need skill, and you need skating, and you need the ability, for sure. We know that. But also, there’s a quality and character of people that desperately want to get the job done. And when the puck drops and there’s an opponent in front of you, they’re going to find a way. Maybe you’re faster than me. Maybe you’re a little bit more skilled than me. But I’m going to find a way to beat you tonight, or in this situation, or on this puck battle, or on this face-off. And that’s what I feel like our organization – whether it’s the American Hockey League in Hershey or here – prioritizes people and players like that.”

Tuesday’s win in Philly leads the Caps to a new beginning. This is a new era of Caps playoff hockey. Veterans and youngsters alike have battled their hardest just to get this far, and they’re not content with just “being here.”

“I think sometimes when you’re younger, you’re a little naïve that it’s going to be every year that you’re going to get a chance to do it,” says the 37-year-old Oshie, who will be playing playoff hockey for the 13th time in his 16 NHL seasons. “Missing last year opens your eyes to the fact that it is very hard to get into the postseason. You need a lot of the right pieces, and then it’s even harder to move up to the second round, the third round and the Final. We’re not taking anything for granted in here for sure.”

“It’s a cool experience for us,” says McMichael. “We had to battle for the last month or so to get here, and we had a lot of people not believing we could do it.  It seemed like every single day things changed to where we were in a playoff spot, we were outside, and we were back in. It was a whirlwind, but we had a lot of fun, and we’re ready to go.”

As the eighth seed going up against the NHL’s top regular season team, and as a team that is seeking its first playoff series win since it won the Stanley Cup in Vegas almost six years ago, the Caps aren’t in position to take anything for granted. But they also feel like they’ve been playing playoff-type games for several weeks, and after having authored several key wins over elite opponents throughout the season, they’re not in awe of anyone.

“I just think it’s the combination of guys,” says Caps’ center Nic Dowd. “Everyone has counted us out, no one gave us an opportunity. We have a group of really young guys that have a lot of confidence, and then we have a group of older guys that also have a lot of confidence, but a different type of confidence in the fact that they’ve been through it, they know what to expect.

“But it’s such a good mix of guys – a good mix of people. We have really good people on our team and on our staff, and people care about each other genuinely. And we’ve been battling so hard to get to this spot; we’ve really come together over the course of the season. It’s unlike honestly any team I’ve been a part of.”

Their shared experiences over the last six months are what binds them. These staffers and these players rode the same buses and planes – and the same peaks and valleys – for the last six months, and they’d love nothing more than to keep it going for as long as they’re able.

The shared experience is also what has fueled them. The Caps finished the season with a punishing grind of nine games in 15 nights. Tuesday’s win afforded them the rare privilege of a few days between games, and some time to reflect on how they got here, and what it took to get here.

“We did talk about it a little bit on the train ride home as a staff,” says Carbery. “Just reflecting quickly on just all the obstacles, ups and downs, and when you think you’re in a really tough spot as a team or we would have a tough performance, and then we would respond and maybe win a couple in a row, and so we were right back in it, and then the trade deadline. All these different events through the year where your emotions go from here to here to here.

“But overall, we found a way in, and that’s probably the overriding theme of our team and this group, the resiliency and the ability for us to just grind and find ways to win hockey games, even in really, really difficult circumstances. And that’s – at the end of the day – what this group has continued to show, even post-deadline, and even when we went through bad stretches, and lose whatever it was towards the end of the year, where we were sitting in a good playoff spot, and then all of a sudden, we’re not, because we dropped three or four in a row.

“And then you feel like we’ve got control of our own destiny, but there’s a couple of falters. But we come right back and win three in a row to secure a playoff spot. There was definitely an emotional rollercoaster this year for us to get in, but now we’re in the dance and now we have an opportunity.”