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Is underdog status exactly what the Washington Capitals need?

Matt Larkin
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Is underdog status exactly what the Washington Capitals need?

Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom. Author: (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Is underdog status exactly what the Washington Capitals need?

Matt Larkin
By:

For the first time in a decade, Washington will reach the playoffs without the expectation of a deep playoff run. Might that mental relief finally cure the team's spring jitters?

Barry Trotz couldn’t believe his eyes. Getting ready for his Washington Capitals’ Stadium Series tilt with the Toronto Maple Leafs in Annapolis, Md., he was perusing some statistics, and one leapt out at him: the Capitals had a younger average age than the Leafs.

Um, what? The Leafs, led by Mitch Marner and William Nylander, both 21 or younger, were the grizzled team compared to the Caps? OK, Patrick Marleau, Dominic Moore and Tomas Plekanec spiked that stat artificially, and Auston Matthews, 20, wasn’t in the lineup, so it didn’t necessarily tell us much about the Leafs – but the fact the Caps were even in the conversation as the younger team spoke volumes. This is the veteran franchise that squandered two consecutive Presidents’ Trophies, that had stalwarts Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom running out of prime years. Or that was at least the perception of who Washington was by season’s end in 2016-17. The Capitals, though, aren’t what they were last year. They’re a much younger, much less predictable team. On one hand, that led many prognosticators to correctly forecast a less-impressive year in the standings, but it also puts the Caps in a different position entering the stretch run. They are, for the first time in about a decade, a sleeper team.

As coach Trotz pointed out over the phone earlier this week, his team barely even lost consecutive games last season. It had one regulation losing streak of more than two games. The perception was that the Capitals obviously had to make the most of their position in the standings. Their fan base was sick of early playoff exits, of never even escaping Round 2.

“We did a lot of things right, we had a good team, but we kept running into a team that was great as well,” Trotz said. “Pittsburgh was No. 2 in the league, and we have to play them in the second round, and there’s a strong history of them beating us, so I think they had a mental advantage. And there was a lot of pressure. There’s a lot of pressure in the Washington with the Caps when it comes to the playoffs.”

This spring, however? Don’t count on the same pressure for a team that lost left winger Marcus Johansson and right winger Justin Williams from its top-six forward group and saw blueliners Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk depart in free agency last summer. General manager Brian MacLellan didn’t make any significant roster upgrades after that, either.

“Everybody wrote us off at the start of the year, said we weren’t gonna make the playoffs,” Trotz said. “We lost a lot of bodies. We’re one of the few teams that, for the year, basically have had two absolute rookie defensemen in our lineup every night.”

The Caps have indeed given seven rookie skaters game action this season – including full-time assignments for blueliners Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos, though the recent Michal Kempny trade has nudged Bowey out of the lineup. Only five teams have deployed more rookies this season – and every one of those other teams missed the playoffs last year and was in obvious rebuild or retool mode.

The Caps have naturally regressed in the standings. They currently hold a .614 points percentage, which is perfectly respectable but the lowest in four years for a franchise with an exceedingly high regular-season standard. They’re grinding day and night in a battle for first place in the Metro instead of lapping the field and twiddling their thumbs over the season’s final couple months. Trotz has had to get creative with his line assignments, handing rugged Tom Wilson a first-line role and newcomer Kempny a partnership with minutes machine John Carlson. The Caps have endured an uncharacteristically poor season from goaltender Braden Holtby, too.

But they’re hanging in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, largely because Ovechkin has enjoyed such a resurgent season, challenging for his eighth 50-goal campaign, which would pull him within one of Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky for the most all-time. One point separates the Capitals and Penguins in the Metro, with the Flyers two points back of Washington, too. It’s thus not inconceivable the Caps draw the Penguins yet again – only this time in Round 1 of the playoffs. But maybe that’s exactly what the Caps should hope for. Under this season’s circumstances, with significantly lowered expectations and so many rookies who weren’t around for the past playoff defeats, might Washington have a different mental edge? The Pens won’t be intimidated as two-time defending Cup champs, but there would be no denying who had the weight of expectation this time around. It wouldn’t be Washington by any means. And Trotz sees some potential in the underdog scenario.

“I think we’re very similar to San Jose when they got to the final (in 2016),” Trotz said. “They had a couple runs and didn’t get there, and when everybody wrote them off and said, ‘You know what? They’re not even gonna get in the playoffs,’ they go to the final.”

Logic doesn’t favor the Caps. They rank as one of the league’s weaker possession teams. They generate the fewest shots on goal per game in the NHL. Their penalty kill is below average. But everything on paper has told us the opposite in previous years. Maybe this is the year they do everything backwards – and peak when it counts in the playoffs.

Worth betting on? Honestly, no. The Caps have reached “earn our trust if you want it” status after so many playoff disappointments. But ‘The underdog Washington Capitals’ should make for one of the league’s most refreshing and fascinating storylines over the next couple months.

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Is underdog status exactly what the Washington Capitals need?