Once you put aside your number one preference for this Stanley Cup playoff season, leave a little cheering room for the Washington Capitals. A team which as recently as October was considered to be a laughingstock, suddenly looks like a finely tuned machine ready to make some noise.
In a season that seemed to be on its way to disaster, the Caps have reversed their downward slide in a most remarkable fashion since the all star break. That run came to a successful run on Saturday night as the Capitals not only snared a playoff spot, but vaulted into the number three seed, all thanks to a 3-1 victory over the Florida Panthers. The win marks the first time in five years that you will hear the words Stanley Cup Playoffs and Washington Capitals in the same sentence.
The Panthers, who must have tired of their role as eliminators, had done the Caps favour number one on Friday night when they defeated the Carolina Hurricanes, out of steam on their final night of the season they couldn't return the favour for the Hurricanes by defeating the Caps.
The Caps seemed to spring to life when GM George McPhee made a number of key moves to solidify his squad, from the toughest of all decisions to replace the popular Glen Hanlon as head coach through to his trade deadline deals, his moves have come up aces with the prospect of much better possibly to come.
The Caps first began to change their direction when Bruce Boudreau moved up from the farm club at American Thanksgiving to take over the reins of the the struggling squad. From that point he has slowly and confidently turned around the attitude and success of this team, providing the explosive offence that was waiting to take off the ability to take control of their own destiny and begin to create their own story.
Alexander Ovechkin set the league on fire with his offensive skills and joy of the game, while some suggest he's a bit of a showboat at times, his celebrations seem to come from the genuine joy of making his team excel.
From his leadership on the scoreboard others have pushed their game forward as well, rookie Niklas Bakstrom provided more than enough proof that he's going to be a player to watch as the years go by, Defenceman Mike Green moves the play from the back end feeding it off to the high flying Capital forwards or blasting the puck into a net on his own accord.
McPhee picked up an old name from his days in Vancouver in Matt Cooke, who provides the grit and the will to fight for the puck in the corners. It at the time was seen as one of those throw away deals, a movement of players between two struggling teams, but as the playoffs come around, the Caps will quickly learn the value of what Cooke brings to the ice.
Sergei Federov was provided with one more chance to make a difference, it appears that this time he may actually have found a team to his liking and is ready to show some of his flash and scoring touch one more time.
McPhee's acquisition of Cristobal Huet at the deadline was seen more as a bid to repackage him for a larger trade, a move that some suggest fell through. If so, it would appear that the failed trade may have been a bonus for the Caps, Huet has been a quality pick up, able to spell off Olaf Kolzig and perhaps now the more likely to start the playoffs as the Caps go to guy. Maybe though the trade was by design, another solid move to add some more experience and stability to a key position.
With the NHL seeding protocol, the Caps will now not only have a high spot but home ice advantage with their third place finish, if they have a preference they surely must be rooting for the standings gods to align things up to bring the Ottawa Senators into their round. Besides the Sens obvious troubles as the season has tailed off, they also have had particular trouble with the Capitals. Ottawa must surely be hoping that they line up against Montreal, despite the Habs high standing, they at least for the first round might be the one team that Ottawa could regain some of their confidence against. A Caps match up while at first glance might seem the easier path, might actually be the hardest of roads to take. Such is the high that the Caps are on at the moment.
For hockey fans, following the lads from Washington could be the next best thing to having a team to cheer for in the second season. They play hockey at the moment the way we all say we want to see it, fast paced, offensive oriented but not afraid to take or give out a hit if the time comes.
Take them lightly at your peril, every NHL playoff season brings on one surprise squad, this could very well be the team that fits that bill as the playoffs get underway. If TSN is looking for a little free marketing advice, grab onto the Capitals and make them your own, they may be the story of the playoffs.
If your team should stumble in this first round of the playoffs, you might want to rehearse the cheer, it goes, Go Caps Go, Go Caps Go, give it a try, you might find that you like the gang you're cheering for...
Washington Times-- Capitals headed to playoffs on late-season resurgence
Washington Times-- Feeling just like playoff hockey
Washington Times-- Mission accomplished
Washington Post-- Coming all the way back
National Post-- Capitals clinch Southeast title
CBC Sports-- Ovechkin, Capitals in Stanley Cup playoffs
Photo above from Washington Post website