8. Washington Capitals
First place in the Metro, 49-26-7
Why they can win – It’s been the same old song and dance in Washington for years now. The Capitals always play well during the regular season, piling up division titles and Presidents’ Trophies only to fall flat when games matter the most. Franchise cornerstone Alex Ovechkin started his career in 2005-06 and Washington has never made it past the second round in his tenure. Ovie is still going strong, capturing another Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals and he’s flanked by plenty of talent up front. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Niklas Backstrom lead the way with plenty of role players like winger T.J. Oshie chipping in.
John Carlson is their best defenseman, but the corps itself is just average. Even with an average defense, goalie Braden Hotlby has had a very down year statistically. His goals against average crept up over 3.00 and his save percentage was barely over .900. Those are pretty poor numbers, especially for a player that has had a goals against under 2.25 for the past three seasons. Holtby hasn’t been the issue in the past playoff failures but he must pick up his game quickly.
Why they can’t – The pressure on Washington at this point is nothing short of immense. The team has spent a ton of money to push for a Stanley Cup and have nothing to show for it, not even a conference finals appearance. This version of the team is on its last legs and everyone in that locker room knows it. The defense is definitely the weak spot and it’s held back a little by veterans like Brooks Orpik who has seen better days and Matt Niskanen who probably isn’t worth his contract. Those two hamstring what the Caps could have on the back end and could continue to submarine the efforts in the playoffs. Nobody is going to believe the Caps will actually win the Cup until they show they can actually do it.
X-Factor – Andre Burakovsky: While plenty of folks want more out of Ovechkin, he’s not really an X Factor so we’ll look towards winger Andre Burakovsky. The young and talented forward is still just 23 years old and still hasn’t hit his ceiling. He missed time at the start of the season with a thumb injury and his legs should be a little fresher than most of his teammates. Players like Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Kuznetsov are going to get the best from the opposition. Burakovsky can swing a game or two with a timely goal.
First Round Matchup – Columbus Blue Jackets; Capitals won the regular season 3-1
Historically for the Capitals, it hasn’t alwasy been the first round that bites them. It’s the second round. This year should be more of the same as they are more talented than the Jackets. Perhaps the biggest question for both teams is in the net. Can either goalie play the way they’re always capable of? Whichever one does can swing the series. Holtby seems like the safer bet, despite his subpar season.
Prediction – Caps in 6