Hands down the Washington Capitals have been the best team in the National Hockey League this season. The Capitals are seeking their first Presidents’ Trophy since 2010 while also attempting to win their first Stanley Cup Championship in franchise history. The Caps have one of the best goal scorers that the NHL has to offer in left winger Alex Ovechkin while goalie Braden Holtby is extremely difficult to score on. The Capitals also have a head coach in Barry Trotz that is battle tested while he also knows how to get the most out of his team. And once you add all of that up, this spring in D.C. could shape up to be very good for the Capitals. But even though that the Capitals are more than likely to finish with the best record in the NHL, it isn’t that cut and dry to see to see them reach the Stanley Cup Final as some long time rivals could stand in their way when the postseason rolls around.
After winning the Stanley Cup Title in 2009, the Pittsburgh Penguins remained a contender in the Eastern Conference. Led by a two-time National League MVP in center Sidney Crosby, the Penguins are always a tough out in the postseason and this year’s squad is no different.
The Penguins are currently in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division, but they are only 3 points behind both the New York Rangers and New York Islanders for second place in the division. Like the Capitals, the Pens have a sharp goalie of their own in Marc-Andre Fleury who’s 2.32 goals against average is 14th in the National Hockey League this season. With the likes of Crosby and center Evgeni Malkin who is currently injured, the Penguins have always had solid scoring, but they added to that last summer when they acquired right winger Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In spite of the fact that Ovechkin and Crosby are two of the top players in the National Hockey League, there’s no love lost between them. And once you factor in that Washington has lost to Pittsburgh in seven of their eight playoff meetings, the Pens are a potential postseason opponent that the Caps cannot afford to overlook.
When it comes to the cities of New York City and Washington D.C., there has always been an intense sports rivalry. We’ve seen it in men’s college basketball with the St. John’s Red Storm and Georgetown Hoyas, in the National Football League with the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, and also in Major League Baseball with the New York Mets and Washington Nationals. The ice doesn’t take a backseat to any of the other sports as the Capitals have been known to get it on with both the Rangers and Islanders.
After the Caps made their National Hockey League debut in 1974 as an expansion team, they failed to qualify for the postseason in their first eight seasons. Things would change for Washington in 1983 when they made their first of 14 consecutive playoff appearances. However the next five years would see the Capitals make the playoffs, but in five matchups with the Islanders, they lost four times.
The Isles and Caps have met in some memorable postseason affairs which is highlighted by their epic seven-game duel in the 1987 Patrick Division Semifinals. Game 7 of the series would go to a fourth overtime before Islanders center Pat LaFontaine score the game and series-winner. Overall the Caps and Islanders have met in the playoffs seven times with the most recent meeting coming last year in another seven-game battle: this one however would be won by Washington.
The current Islanders team has solid goal scorers in centers John Tavares and Brock Nelson. But unlike the Penguins, the Isles are not as strong between the pipes with their goalies Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak. In a potential playoff series with the Islanders, the Caps would have a decided home-ice advantage as the Barclays Center in Brooklyn doesn’t have the same appeal for the fans of the Isles like the Nassau Coliseum did.
And then there’s the case of the Rangers. The Rangers and Capitals have met in the postseason six times with New York emerging victorious on four occasions including last spring. The Rangers might not have the star power that the Capitals have, but they do have one of the best goalies that the National Hockey League currently has in Henrik Lundqvist. And when Lundqvist is on, you have a better chance of navigating through gridlock traffic in the Big Apple than scoring on him.
But maybe the thought of the Capitals having to deal with some of their longtime rivals in the playoffs could be just what the doctor ordered for them. Ovechkin has accomplished all of the personal accolades that the National Hockey League has to offer which includes him being being a three-time league MVP, but he continues to hear the growing banter about him not being able to lead his team to a Stanley Cup Title. Trotz put Nashville Predators hockey on the map as he was their head coach in the team’s first 15 years of existence. Trotz got the Predators to the postseason seven times and only eight head coaches in NHL history have won more regular season games than his 652. However Trotz is still searching for the elusive Stanley Cup Title to put on his soon-to-be Hockey Hall of Fame resume.
The Nation’s Capitol is seeking its first title in one the four major sports leagues in the United States since 1991 when the Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl. The Capitals have the potential to go all the way this spring, but it won’t be easy with some bona fide heavyweights potentially standing in their way.