Capitals advance to Stanley Cup playoffs after challenging season

In the bright, optimistic days of early October, Spencer Carbery sat in his chair and made a proclamation. The rookie head coach of the Washington Capitals was visiting the Washington Post for a pre-hearing roundtable with reporters and editors. He was a week away from coaching his first regular-season game, and when he spoke, he didn’t frame his statement with any qualifiers or assumptions.

With quiet, assured confidence, he didn’t need it.

“I still feel like we have a very competitive team,” Carbery said. “I understand what’s happening given the age of our team and where we need to go, building for the future and integrating young players, but as a head coach I still have a lot of confidence in our group I think we can thread the needle and also be very, very competitive and be a playoff team. That’s what I believe… Whatever you want to say about last year, I still think. that we are capable of being a playoff team.

In preseason, each team believes they are capable of qualifying for the playoffs. Each new coach believes he can right the wrongs of the previous regime. At the time, Carbery’s statement sounded more like the bravado, even naivety, of a young first-year coach who had no idea how difficult the road ahead would be.

But six months and ten days after Carbery said those words, his Capitals proved him right. With a win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday, Washington secured the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference and is back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Capitals, who missed the playoffs last season, have the worst goal differential, minus-37, of any playoff team in the salary cap era. In nine of their last 10 regular season games, and 42 of 82 overall, they have scored two goals or fewer. Their power play, which spent much of the season at the bottom of the league, only improved to 17th – still in the bottom half.

And they’re in the playoffs.

“I believed in this group the whole time,” Charlie Lindgren, who became the Capitals’ No. 1 goaltender and at times single-handedly kept them afloat, said Tuesday. “Obviously there were times where it seemed maybe a little difficult, but there was definitely no giving up in this group. That says a lot about the guys in the locker room. All the credit goes to them. »

By early October, Carbery was counting on Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov as his two top centers, providing a Stanley Cup-winning veteran foundation for their new coach to build upon. Backstrom only played in eight games before retiring in early November. Things didn’t go as planned with Kuznetsov either, with a benching in December, a stint in the NHL player assistance program in February and a trade to the Carolina Hurricanes in March.

Washington also traded winger Anthony Mantha, who scored 20 goals in 56 games, and defenseman Joel Edmundson before the deadline. This could have been the moment the Capitals decided to put everything aside and focus on next season. Instead, it turned out to be a turning point.

“There are so many different moments where this team has shown its true character throughout this year by finding different ways to win,” Carbery said after Monday’s shutout against the Boston Bruins. “And also, when our backs were against the wall and our season was on the brink in several situations – after the deadline, we cut some guys. Easy for our group to say, “You know what? It was a superb race. We’re not going this year, so we’ll just ride off into the sunset.

“It wasn’t even close to that. Our guys say, “We’ll find a way. » »

That sentiment became something of a mantra for Washington as the season went on and it became clear that these Capitals weren’t going to be the run-and-gun, score-at-will version of years past. They had to win games the hard way – grinding out one-goal victories and fighting for every inch of ice, every shift, every night.

This was true for their first win of the season, a 3-2 shootout victory over the Calgary Flames on October 16, and it was true for their final victory of the season, which needed a game-winning goal in an empty net from TJ Oshie. to seal the deal, and among many others of the 38 intermediate victories.

But as the Capitals defied the odds and won three games in four nights to close out the regular season and secure a playoff berth, their almost defiant attitude recalled Carbery’s first mantra for his group: something to prove.

“This is the first time in a long, long time where the narrative of the hockey world has created a lot of doubt in this group,” Carbery said in October. “If you read an article, none of them say, ‘Pay attention to the Washington Capitals, they’re a playoff team.’ »

The Capitals rallied around the idea of ​​proving those doubters wrong, no matter how long their chances of doing so last.

“It’s a situation that no one thought we were going to find ourselves in,” said captain Alex Ovechkin, who scored his 31st goal of the season and 853rd of his career on Tuesday, reflecting on what his team has done. accomplished. “But we are winning. … We’ve been through a lot of tough times, injuries, trades, and we still believe in it. The most important thing is belief. We all believe in each other.

Just like Carbery believed in his group, from the start.

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