It wouldn't be an NHL postseason without the Washington Capitals crapping themselves. Braden Holtby forgetting how to skate. Nicklas Backstrom treating the puck like a hand grenade. Brooks Orpik… well, he will play.
You can set your watch by it every year—despite knowing full well that the Capitals will break your heart in the postseason, some idiot will write a story explaining all the reasons why this year will be different for the Capitals, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
I would now like to offer all the reasons why this year will be different for the Capitals, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
I know, I know. Holtby is a shell of himself and this year's Capitals are objectively worse than the previous two teams that won Presidents' Trophies. What are you, some kind of idiot?
Yes. Yes, I am.
I'm not saying the Capitals will win the Stanley Cup—check back in a month—but here is why they will finally reach the third round of the postseason during the Ovechkin era.
1. THE EXPECTATIONS AREN'T THERE
You might not know this about me, but I am a certified psychologist. I specialize in sports psychology and my ability to read body language from my couch after 6-7 beers is unparalleled in the field. Watching this team the past two seasons with the burden of championship expectations fold the moment things go wrong is a big reason why I was able to publish a half-dozen award-winning papers in psychology journals that have elevated me in the medical community.
Does anyone even know the Capitals are alive this season? They're having another 100-plus point season yet you'd think they were mathematically eliminated in February. Clearly, EVERYONE THINKS WE CAN DO THIS was too much to handle, so now the Capitals can adopt that annoying-ass thing really good teams do in the playoffs and try the NO ONE THINKS WE CAN DO THIS mentality.
Only this time, it's true. No one thinks they can do this. It has to be freeing. Lower expectations enough and you can't ever let anyone down.
2. THE ROADBLOCKS AREN'T THERE
Here's the thing about the East—it sucks. We're not concerning ourselves with the Bruins, Lightning, and Leafs because they won't be a factor during the first two rounds. No matter the wild card team the Capitals draw in the first round, it won't be as tough or talented as the Flyers in 2016 and Leafs in 2017.
But what about the Penguins?
Either two things happen: 1) The Capitals finally luck out and don't have to face the Penguins or 2) The Capitals face the Penguins and defeat them, causing the skies to open and Jesus himself to descend upon the world and fill the glasses of true believers with wine.
The Penguins are still The Penguins but they've been playing so-so hockey for a little more than a month and while that might not matter when it comes to the Choking Capitals, they're not the world beaters they've been the past two years. In a way, the Capitals filling their shorts with poop the past two seasons could be a reason they get past the Penguins this year, as all those championship runs shorten offseasons and take a toll on a body in a much more severe way than golfing and sitting by a pool in May.
3. PHILIPP GRUBAUER
Before the Penguins won back-to-back Cups, Marc-Andre Fleury was pure, concentrated Capitals, spitting up on himself postseason after postseason. The Penguins never had a better option, so they kept running him out there to score goals on himself and sabotage great season after season.
Matt Murray changed all that and while Fleury did some lifting last year, the change in net was a big reason the Penguins got over the hump.
Holtby has quietly barfed in the second round the past two years, so having a red-hot Grubauer can only be a good thing, assuming he gets the No. 1 job to open the postseason. Grubauer has a .925 save percentage but has been above .930 in his past 20 starts, so he really should get the net for Game 1.
Another great accidental thing about the Caps sucking is that this will be the first postseason since Barry Trotz arrived in Washington that he won't have run his goaltender into the ground in the regular season. Maybe Holtby was hitting a wall in the second round the past two years because he played an average of 65 regular-season games but he won't break 55 this year and Grubauer will make fewer than 30 starts.
It's possible Grubauer carries the water until he hits a wall and a rested Holtby grabs the reins the way Murray did when Fleury ran out of gas against Ottawa last year. The goaltending situation, as unsettled as it may be, is very good for the Capitals right now.
4. THE CAPITALS HAVE SLOWLY IMPROVED DURING THE SEASON
According to Puck on Net, the Capitals rank 24th in score-adjusted Fenwick at 47.6 percent, which you know is garbage because it's only slightly better than what the Senators have done this season. But over their past 20 games, the Capitals rank 14th at 51.0 percent, hardly a dominant number but at least they are in the black.
If they can stay on the winning side of the shot attempt battle and get the goaltending they've been getting from Grubauer, the Capitals have the scoring skill to make this work.
5. LESS BROOKS ORPIK
Orpik is averaging 19:28 of ice time per game, which is just about what he averaged last year. He's still sort of playing a top-four role, but maybe, just maybe, against all odds, Trotz will find a way to use him less in the playoffs? Perhaps?
Orpik has logged under 19:28 in seven of his past eight games. If Trotz is truly ready to wean Orpik into fewer important minutes—I have fallen for this before—the Capitals have an excellent chance to avoid disaster on a nightly basis. It's not as though the Capitals' top-four without Orpik is made of Hall of Famers, but every little bit helps, which includes getting Orpik out of the way as much as possible.
Well, I have gone and done it. I have again talked myself into the Capitals (for at least two rounds).