The Washington Capitals had the best regular season in their history, which puts them under more pressure than ever in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"Everybody's expecting them to win, and a first-round knockout would be as embarrassing as probably ever in the history of the Washington Capitals," NBC Sports analyst Jeremy Roenick said Tuesday while previewing the 2016 playoffs. "So there's a lot of intangibles that go on there. But I still think Washington, you have to [make] them the heavy, heavy favorite in this one."
The Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy by going 56-18-8 (120 points), had the NHL's top goal-scorer (Alex Ovechkin, 50), and goalie Braden Holtby won 48 games to tie Martin Brodeur for most in an NHL season. Washington was in the top five in goals per game (3.02, second), goals against (2.33, second), power-play percentage (21.9, fifth), and penalty-kill percentage (85.1, third).
They will play Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Philadelphia Flyers at Verizon Center on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; CBC, NBCSN, TVA Sports, CSN-PH, CSN-DC).
Since Ovechkin debuted in the 2005-06 season, the Capitals have made the playoffs seven times. Five times they were one of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference, and twice were the No. 1 seed. They never advanced beyond the second round, and have never won the Stanley Cup since entering the NHL in 1974-75.
"There's that seed of doubt that seems to reside in Washington that they might not be able to do it," NBC studio analyst Mike Milbury said. "But I think they're the team to watch."
After winning the Presidents' Trophy in 2010, the Capitals blew a 3-1, best-of-7, first-round series lead to the Montreal Canadiens. Last season, Barry Trotz's first as coach, they were 1:41 from eliminating the New York Rangers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Second Round before Chris Kreider tied a game the Rangers won in overtime. Washington lost the series in Game 7.
The Flyers finished this season strong, split four games with the Capitals, and could hold an advantage in intangibles. Philadelphia ended the season 15-5-3 to pass four teams in the standings and clinch the second wild card from the East, and the Flyers are 11-5-1 against the Capitals in the past five seasons.
"There is no pressure right now on the Philadelphia Flyers," Roenick said. "They're playing against a team that everybody is expecting to beat them. The Washington Capitals have run through the regular season and have made it look relatively easy.
"I don't think there is anybody that thinks [the Flyers] will win outside of Philadelphia. So for them to come out and play as loose, and driving and try to be that spoiler sometimes can be in their benefit. I don't think it's going to happen, but if there is a team that has shown that they can beat Washington and they can beat some of these big teams, the Philadelphia Flyers are a team because of the way they've made the playoffs, with beating some big teams on the road and going on the stretch that they have.
"It leads you to believe that if they can steal one out of Washington, their belief will get stronger, they'll get more physical, and the harder that Washington will have to play to win."
Milbury said he needs to see more from Flyers forward Jakub Voracek. He had 11 goals and 55 points in 73 games and missed three weeks with a lower-body injury one season after he tied for fourth in the League with 81 points (22 goals, 59 assists). He signed an eight-year contract reportedly worth $66 million this offseason.
"There is no chance for Philadelphia to beat Washington unless they can get more than just from one line," Milbury said. "That means Jake Voracek has to wake up. I don't know what's happened to him since he was injured. I don't know if his injury is still bothering him. We can never get those answers until sometimes not even until the season's over, but he's not the player that they expect him to be. And a one-trick pony doesn't often win the blue ribbon in this particular contest."