Today marks the first post-season game for the Washington Capitals since 2003 and the first post-season tilt against the Philadelphia Flyers since 1989, when the Flyers beat the Patrick division-leading Caps with stellar play from goaltender Ron Hextall.
On November 22, the play-offs were the farthest thing from the minds of the Capitals' faithful. Washington had the worst record in the league at 6-14-1, and long-time minor league coach Bruce Boudreau had been brought up from the AHL Caps affiliate Hershey Bears without a single game of NHL head coaching experience. Without knowing what to expect, General Manager George McPhee made one of many excellent decisions and gave Boudreau a shot. Boy, did it ever pay off.
The Caps enter tonight's game as one of the hottest teams in the NHL, winning seven straight games, 11 of the last 12, and 14 of the last 18. A big reason for the streak is newly acquired goaltender Cristobal Huet, whose 9-game winning streak is the longest of his career. Hopefully for the Caps, the week off does not affect Huet's play. He has been stellar, posting a 1.63 goals against average with a .936 save percentage. He posted an 11-2 record since joining the Capitals at the trade deadline, including 2 shutouts.
Huet will have his hands full. The Flyers' top two lines both possess top-line centers in Daniel Brier and Mike Richards. Either of these guys can beat you themselves or help their line mates do so. The Caps will need defensemen Shaone Morrisonn and Jeff Shultz - both battling injuries suffered in the final three games of the season - to heal quickly.
Back in '98, the Caps rode the strong play of Olie Kolzig all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. The question this season is whether Huet can stand on his head in the play-offs, as Olie did so many years ago.
Of course, Alexander Ovechkin is equally important to the Capitals' success. His 65 goals and 112 points are both tops in the league, and as a result, he will likely become quite close to Flyers' defenseman Kimmo Timonen. Ovechkin will undoubtedly get his shots - only Phil Esposito has ever taken more in a season - but other players will need to step up, as they have during the stretch run to make the play-offs. That has historically been the Achilles' heel of the Caps post-season runs, so a strong showing by guys like Alexander Semin, Viktor Kozlov and Nicklas Backstrom could put the Caps over the top and into the next round.
The Capitals have a hot team, a hot goaltender, a top scoring forward and defenseman, and loads of young talent. No matter what happens this post-season, the Caps have the pieces in place to be a contender for a long time. Just making the post-season after the start this team endured is a major accomplishment. That being said, there is only one team that gets to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup, and the Caps have a talented team. As the saying goes, in the play-offs, anything can happen.
If the Caps continue to play the way they have the last two months, one has to like their chances.