The Alex Ovechkin era in Washington has been filled with excitement, promise and at times, pure dominance.
However, Ovechkin averaged less than a point per game for the first time in his career in 2012 and things weren't looking much better early in 2013. He was invisible during some games, and it appeared the Capitals might miss the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Then, without warning, Ovechkin and the Capitals took off.
In the final 23 games of the season Ovechkin scored 23 goals, and the Capitals went 17-4-2 to secure their fifth division crown in six years.
A great string of titles—although expected—given how poor the Southeast Division has been lately.
The Capitals have proven themselves in the regular season many times. The pressure is on them to finally take the next step in the playoffs. At the very least, they need to get past the second round, something they've failed to do in the Ovechkin era.
Anything other than a trip to the Eastern Conference final should be considered a major disappointment.
Last year, a Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers prevented the Capitals from advancing to the conference final. Back in 2009, they held a 2-0 series lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the semifinals before losing in seven games.
So, is this the year for the Capitals?
Well, if they keep playing the way they did in the last month of the regular season, it could be.
The Capitals got off to a strong start Thursday, defeating the New York Rangers 3-1 to take a 1-0 series lead. Ovechkin scored his 31st career playoff goal—a franchise record—and Braden Holtby stopped 35 of 36 shots to earn the win.
Rookie head coach Adam Oates continues to get the best out of his captain. Ovechkin was aggressive on offense, using his speed and size to drive the net and create scoring chances. He was also a force physically and in the defensive zone, finishing with five hits and a couple blocked shots.
Look for Ovechkin to continue to light the lamp, perhaps as frequently as he did in the 2009 playoffs (11 goals and 21 points in 14 games) without being nearly as much of a defensive liability.
That, and consistent goaltending from Holtby will be the two most crucial factors for the Capitals going forward.
While it’s still early, should Washington eliminate New York, it would likely play the Montreal Canadiens or Boston Bruins in the next round. It has had success against both the Habs and Bruins this year, going 2-1 against each team in the regular season.
Washington also beat the Bruins in the first round of last year’s playoffs, winning the series 4-3.
The Rangers, Canadiens and Bruins all have elite goaltenders and strong defenses. However, if Ovechkin continues to dominate offensively and the defense can block shots and limit turnovers in its own end, the Capitals will have good chance of winning back-to-back series.
It’s been said a few times in recent years, but perhaps this really is the season where the Capitals return to the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 1998.
But, would Ovechkin and company come out on top against a Penguins team that added several pieces prior to the deadline?
At this point it's hard to imagine any NHL team beating the Penguins four times in seven games, but a lot can happen over the next month to change that.
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