I know as well as anyone in this town what this morning is supposed to represent . . . and optimism isn’t encoded in it. These are the NHL playoffs after all, and our local entry in them is a legacy of part comic-relief, part tragedy, and a whole ‘lotta bad karma. The names change, the uniform styles alter, and certainly the caliber of adversary rarely seems to matter. Cause when the trees begin to pollinate in the nation’s capital, our guys on the ice go wheezing and gagging.
It’s our curse.
So why am I Ollie the Optimistic Blogger this morning? Five big-themed reasons.
(1) Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau, no stranger to unflattering scrutiny as it relates to the NHL postseason, walked a bit of a plank this regular season, stared down at water churning with hungry sharks, jumped in, and swam through safely to an island oasis (the island of Clogged Neutral Zone). He jettisoned the system for which he was famed for the entirety of his professional coaching career — an astoundingly selfless and courageous gamble — smack in the middle of the season, as his team plummeted in the standings, and just as impressively managed to get all of his skaters to buy into the replacement system of serious un-fun. He took a room full of pretty hockey players and told them to go ugly, and they have. Following which began a big run of winning. And this replacement system just happens to be one with an NHL postseason seal of approval to it. Make no mistake: these Capitals want very badly to play and play well for this coach, and who in Washington harbored such a thought some 100 days ago?
(2) As Zero Hour approached for remedying glaring weakspots on his roster, Capitals general manager George McPhee may have saved the best trade deadline maneuvering of his NHL executive career for when he most needed it. He badly needed a second-line center. He scored a decorated gamer in Jason Arnott. He badly needed depth and two-way quality on his blueline, and he thieved Dennis Wideman from Florida. And he added additional veteran experience and speed to his wing, parting with nothing for the waiver wire claim of Marco Sturm. All three additions have performed exceptionally well in their new sweaters. Perhaps just as importantly, they appear to have altered the chemical composition of the room.
You couldn’t have watched the season’s first 50 games and not believed that something was amiss in the inner sanctum. So many nights the team skated without a scintilla of inspiration, and some of the worst results of the Bruce Boudreau era in D.C. accompanied. Already it is part of Washington’s hockey lore: Jason Arnott was in his new room a matter of hours before he noted something out of kilter; he spoke up; his new teammates listened; and he subsequently struck up a notable off-ice relationship with the under-achieving, under heavy pressure captain. Gracious, the 2000 Stanley Cup overtime striker even has Alexander Semin smiling — and conspicuously conversely in English, at length, on the bench and out on the ice. Taken collectively, these very altered states bode well for spring.
(3) The East is no Beast. Pittsburgh bolstered its blueline big-time last summer, then watched its elite centers ensnared by the ill fortune of long-term injury. Guess what’s Philly’s Achilles heel . . . again? Montreal has regained some health on the blueline, but on many nights they skate without cohesion, seemingly with a deficit of inspiration and leadership. But they do have Carey Price. Boston seems smaller than the sum of its parts, and while Tim Thomas had a Vezina-caliber regular season, he’s yet to meet the challenge of the postseason. You have to think the winner of that Habs-Bs first rounder more a survivor than a thriver. Tampa very well could take out the Pens in round one, but they possess neither reliable offensive depth up front nor much in the way of mobility on the blueline. The most charismatic and courageous and well-coached outfit confronting the Caps in the East this postseason may well arrive on Verizon Center ice this evening. The Rags possess no elite offensive threat; instead they swarm and cycle and hurl their bodies in front of shots with reckless abandon. They’ll be a tough out; it oughta be a terrific matchup. It also ought to be eminently winnable.
(4) The Capitals’ goaltending has been one of the few roster strongsuits this entire season. It’s been steady and reliable and equal parts impressive no matter who earned the call. We have no reason to believe it will suddenly fail the team now.
(5) There is for the Capitals a recent, faith-shaking run of pronounced disappointment. The wounds from last April are perhaps barely cauterized, its scars vivid. More harrowing disappointment dogged the team during the regular season. HBO cameras in December captured the coach and general manager identifying that month’s swoon as “potentially the best thing that’s ever happened” to the roster. Time soon will tell. The NHL postseason has little regard for regular season wonders, especially at the very top; I like greatly that the Capitals have suffered, severely, on their journey to this moment. They bring to it no President’s Trophy hubris. They have battled through ravenous injury and a spirited challenge to their champion’s reign in the Southeast. They even sent a statement of determination to the Flyers for conference supremacy. They are this morning an intriguing blend of elite if springtime under-achieving talent well-blended with veterans of formidable triumph. They have a dangerous third line. They need just a wee bit more health. And of course luck.
It’s a faith statement I’m making this morning, necessarily, and like me many of you bear the battlescars of decades of disappointment from the crucible that is the NHL postseason. Washington the sh*t sports town so badly needs a rousing reversal of fortune in the arena. So let’s open our tightly clenched fists one more time, extend our arms out toward Lady Luck yet again, and again see if she’ll blow on our dice. Caps in six.