As the NHL season ends and anticipation for the playoffs begins, there are some teams that will have more than the average pressure on them to do well in the playoffs and the runaway leader of this group is the Washington Capitals. The President’s Trophy winner MUST make it to the Eastern Conference Final and do well in that round before bowing out. That is the MINIMUM goal that will be acceptable. Chicago and Los Angeles can put their feet up and not win for another decade. They have won their Stanley Cups and have exceeded expectations. Even Pittsburgh (the team with the second most amount of pressure on it in the coming playoffs, seeking to regain the future that was predicted for them when they drafted Crosby and Malkin) will not have as much pressure on them as Washington. Crosby and Malkin can retire knowing that they have won at least one Stanley Cup, which puts them on the level with Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita of the 1960s Chicago Blackhawks glory teams.
But a similar future was predicted for the Washington Capitals when they drafted Alexander Ovechkin. It was a unique situation, the first in NHL history. Never before had a non-Canadian player been drafted who was predicted to be as good or even better than the current best Canadian player. There was expected to be a personal rivalry between Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby from the start to the finish of their careers. But Sidney Crosby has won a Stanley Cup and two Olympic Gold medals. He can retire with some sense of achievement.
The same cannot be said for Alexander Ovechkin. His Washington Capitals have never even made it to the Eastern Conference Final, never mind competing in the Stanley Cup Final round. Just as humiliating is the poor performance of the Russian team during the peak years of Ovechkin’s career. It was bad enough to have a poor performance in Vancouver in 2010, but to be knocked out by Finland in only the quarter finals on your own home ice in Sochi in 2014 really stings. Ovechkin wins scoring titles, not championships. His true rival is no longer Sidney Crosby but Marcel Dionne, currently the greatest NHL player never to even make the Conference Final.
Ovechkin has now reached the age of 30, usually the starting point for the decline of hockey skills to retirement. Time is starting to run out for him. Oh he will still be unanimously elected to the NHL Hockey Hall of Fame, there’s no danger of missing that, but it will not be on the level he wants, not if his Washington and Russian teams do not win. He will be judged great, but overrated. And this may be the most pressure year he has ever faced. The glories of the regular season including the President’s Trophy will mean nothing if they bow out in the first two rounds to a team of lesser talent like they have so often in the past. The Capitals MUST make the Conference Final for this season to be judged as a season of progress.
Also under the magnifying glass will be Washington coach, Barry Trotz. He has done a wonderful job during the regular season as he did a similar competent job in guiding the under-talented Nashville Predators into the playoffs in previous years. But this is the first time he will enter the playoffs with a really talented team. Its playoff confidence will be shaky. The veterans on this team like Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Orpik, etc., know only too well how they have failed in the past to lift this team to the heights expected of it. If this team starts to lose to the upstart, eighth place, mouse-that-roared, playoff team, morale and confidence could disintegrate very quickly and the situation would be like trying to plug too many holes in a crumbling dam. Trotz’s coaching savvy could be very sorely tested in the coming weeks.
So it will not be an envious position to be a Washington Capital in April. It will be far more relaxing to be a Chicago Blackhawk, a Los Angeles King, or a member of a playoff underdog team with nothing to lose. Even if the Capitals make the Stanley Cup Finals, they will be underdogs if their opponents are either the Chicago Blackhawks or Los Angeles Kings, two teams that have won it all recently and know how to win it again. All the way it will be tough on Washington because they have failed to win and meet expectations in the past. Will this be Washington’s year of glory or the Capitals’ and Ovechkin’s last chance?