The Washington Capitals almost made it look too easy.
After a disappointing finish to the 2014-15 season that saw them blow a 3-1 series lead against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Second Round, the Capitals tinkered with their roster and returned focused on getting over the hump and winning what has been an elusive championship.
The Capitals became the first team this season to accumulate 100 points, accomplishing the feat with a month still to play in the regular season. On Tuesday, they became the first to clinch a berth in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs once they reached overtime of their 2-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center, assuring themselves of a place in the postseason for the eighth time in nine seasons.
Here are five reasons why the Capitals clinched:
1. Ovi is still Ovi
He's certainly not doing alone, but forward Alex Ovechkin continues to be a dominant player. He leads the NHL with 42 goals and has scored at least 40 in a season for the eighth time in his career.
Sixteen of Ovechkin's goals have come on the power play and his plus-19 rating is nearly double what it was a season ago, when he was plus-10 over 81 games.
2. Holtby is a superstar
Ovechkin will always receive the bulk of the attention in Washington, but isn't its lone superstar.
Braden Holtby, the 26-year-old Capitals goalie, has proven last season was no fluke, when he won 41 games and had a 2.25 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage over a remarkable 73 games. This season, Holtby already has won a career-high 42 games and his GAA and save percentage are practically identical.
Barring a setback, it appears almost a certainty Holtby, a likely finalist for the Vezina Trophy, will surpass Martin Brodeur for the most wins in a season; Brodeur won 48 games in 2006-07.
Video: CAR@WSH: Holtby makes pad save to keep it scoreless
3. Justin Williams
After his team made another premature exit from the playoffs, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan knew his roster needed to add a battle-tested player before the 2015-16 season. He was able to do that when right wing Justin Williams signed a two-year contract last July.
Williams has not only provided leadership, but another offensive weapon too; he ranks fourth on the Capitals with 48 points in 69 games. Washington is hoping to see Williams' true value in the playoffs; he has won more Game 7s (seven) than the Capitals have in their history (four). Williams has seven goals and seven assists in those deciding games, and his teams are 7-0. Washington could surely use some of Williams' good fortune come playoff time.
4. Emergence of younger players
Offense has been spread among the Capitals forwards this season. Eight forwards have reached double digits in goals, and nine players have at least 30 points.
But the emergence of 23-year-old Evgeny Kuznetsov can't go unnoticed. Washington's first-round pick (No. 26) at the 2010 NHL Draft, Kuznetsov leads the Capitals in assists (50) and points (70) through 69 games. He had 37 points in 80 games last season.
Video: ARI@WSH: Kuznetsov puts the Capitals on the board
Health plays a major role in any team's success. For the most part, the Capitals have been fortunate in that regard, particularly up front. Forward Marcus Johansson missed four games in early February because of an upper-body injury, but other than that, Washington has avoided the injury bug.
On defense, the Capitals survived without Brooks Orpik for three months because of a lower-body injury, but he returned on Feb. 16. John Carlson has missed nine games because of a lower-body injury, but should return within the next two weeks. The Capitals' biggest weapon from the blue line, Carlson's health will be vital in the playoffs.