The Washington Capitals have been the best team in the NHL this season, and they are emerging as an early Stanley Cup favorite for the playoffs.
The Capitals have made the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons, but the team has not advanced past the second round since 1998. The team has had high expectations over the past few years with Alex Ovechkin leading the way, and each of those seasons ended in disappointing losses to the New York Rangers.
The Caps have been eliminated in their last three playoff appearances by the Rangers, including in seven games last season in the second round. Scott Allen at the Washington Post writes that the team has a "Stanley Cup or bust" mentality this season, and so far the team has delivered on that. Washington is leading the NHL with 92 points this year, and it is almost guaranteed the number one seed and home-ice advantage through the playoffs.
The Capitals have a 17-point lead over the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference standings, putting them in position to be the home team for every playoff series. The play of Ovechkin is one reason why the Capitals are in strong position to make a run. The Washington captain has 56 points in 57 games played this season, including 39 goals, which leads the league.
The team has also been getting major contributions from other players like Evgeny Kuznetsov and TJ Oshie. Kuznetsov is leading the league in plus-minus and is third in assists, while Nicklas Backstrom is ranked in the top 10 in assists. The play of Braden Holtby in net has been stellar as well, as the goaltender is leading the league in wins with 38. Holtby is also ranked in the top 10 this season in save percentage and goals against average.
The Capitals need those players to continue doing the same things in the playoffs, and if that happens, a deep run could be possible. Last season the stars for the Capitals did not step up in the playoffs, with Ovechkin not scoring a goal in the final four games of the series against the Rangers. Backstrom only had two points in seven games against New York and no goals in his last 10 games of the postseason.
Brooks Orpik said that the team may have felt some added pressure last year to win, and that may have played a part in the loss to the Rangers. "I think learning how to deal with that type of pressure and learning it to kind of push you in a positive way - not put too much pressure on you in a negative way - is a fine line," said Orpik.
The team also added some depth at the trade deadline with a deal for Mike Weber. The Capitals have a strong back line already, but bringing in Weber gives the team some insurance, and his veteran leadership could be huge for the playoffs. Will this be the year for the Capitals? Only time will tell.