There's a reason that allusions to roller-coaster rides are not uncommon when discussing DC's hockey team. The ups, the downs, the twists and turns, the heartwarming underdog victories and the heartbreaking, soul-crushing defeats that can both happen within just a few days... it's the norm around here. We're used to the ride. Want to feel your heart in your throat? Rock the red.
And your stomach.
It does seem, however, that this season sets the bar fairly high as thrill rides go. The Caps have somehow managed to cram a full 82-game season worth of spine-tingling action into just 48 games, an impressive feat to say the least. All the "get hot at the right time and ride it to the playoffs" goodness of the 2007-08 run without the benefit of 82 games to shake off a slow start; all the "clinch a playoff spot at the last minute" fun of last season without having at least been in the race for most of the year.
And it's that compressed, anxious feeling that's surrounded this team for the past few weeks, which makes the journey the Caps completed by clinching the division nothing short of incredible.
The naysayers and realists will point out that the Caps benefited from a lousy Southeast Division. They'll note how the Caps were able to climb the ranks in large part because Carolina and Winnipeg chose the perfect time to choke on their respective success. Both are accurate and legitimate points - you simply don't climb out of as big a hole as the Caps dug themselves without getting some help, and they got it when they most needed it.
But in order to take advantage of all of those factors, they needed to start winning - they needed to take care of their own business, and that's exactly what they did. With their fate in their own hands (hey, thanks Buffalo) they did what needed to be done. Looking back at where they started, what the Caps were able to accomplish at Verizon Center last night is something pretty special.
Consider that a little over two weeks into the season, the Caps had played eleven games and lost all but two of them, their five points positioning them firmly at the bottom of division, conference and league. The Southeast leader at the time, Tampa, had already built up a seven-point lead atop the division. A new coach, some injuries, a couple of slumping stars - it was the perfect storm. The season was seemingly over and it had barely started.
Fast forward to a month later. Having shaken off their early-season doldrums, the Caps went on a bit of a tear and won eight of their next eleven to bring their record close to .500... but alas, the lukewarm streak barely made an impression on the jam-packed East. Despite signs of life from the District, the Caps had only managed to hoist themselves into 12th in the conference, six points behind Southeast-leading Carolina and five points out of the last playoff spot. And nothing about the way they were winning was consistent or particularly comforting (and the memories of those horrible early games still too fresh even if they had been).
Six weeks ago they had amazingly fallen even further out of contention, sitting ten points back of the Hurricanes. Three teams separated them from the division lead; six teams separated them from the eighth and final playoff spot. It was at that point that most of us probably hit the acceptance stage of the grieving process - it was too steep a hill to climb, too short a time in which to do it, and too many bodies in the way. Chalk this one up to a bad season, go for that good draft pick, and move on.
And then... something happened.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what, or when, although it did seem to coincide with a pivotal series in Winnipeg towards the end of March. Whether it was the desperation that comes with being perched on the ledge or the system finally clicking for everyone at the same time or the return of Mike Green and Brooks Laich to the lineup or Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin being reunited - or all of these things and more - something changed.
After dropping a close but well-played game in Pittsburgh, the Caps headed up to Manitoba for a two-game series with their division rivals who had recently ascended to the Southeast lead; lose one, or both, and the season was likely over.
They won both. Decisively. Suddenly the division lead was down to five points, still a huge gap but the closest they'd been in weeks. For the first time in a long time, there was hope in DC. And from those two wins in Winnipeg the Caps began to tear through their opponents with a precision and a skill that had been lacking earlier in the year. They lost just three of their next seventeen games, only twice in regulation, and began to gain ground just as Carolina and Winnipeg began to swoon. By April 2 the Jets' lead was down to two points; two days later the Caps had pulled even. And with a win over Tampa on April 7, the Caps moved ahead of Winnipeg for the first time.
The path they took to that point and to where they are today wasn't easy - it required some extraordinary feats of hockey and some things simply falling into place the right way.
First and foremost they needed their captain to put the team on his shoulders and string together superhuman performance after superhuman performance, and he did just that, scoring twice as many goals as anyone else since mid-March to move into the League lead and inching closer to the top in points, as well. On rare occasions where he wasn't enough they needed others to step up and others did, with Troy Brouwer and Mike Green leading the way and all lines contributing at key times.
They needed their goalies to steal games and they did, with Michal Neuvirth backstopping two impressive wins over top-scoring teams and Braden Holtby doing his thing against the Islanders and Hurricanes. They needed the power play to click - it connected in eleven of their last seventeen games, with at least two goals in five of those eleven games, and now leads the League at an astounding 26% rate. They needed their defensemen not named Mike Green to chip in on offense - enter John Carlson and the surprising production of Jack Hillen. Strong depth on D? Enter Vezina candidate John Erskine and out-of-nowhere newcomer Steven Oleksy.
They got all of these things, along with help from some teams in front of them, and as a result will head into the playoffs as the three seed - a feat that is almost beyond comprehension to anyone who buried the Caps weeks ago (and admit it, that was pretty much all of us). To some extent they're playing with house money, because few thought they would even be in the postseason let alone win the division... but darn it all if they haven't gotten our hopes up to the point where we think they can take on anyone. Bring on the Leafs, the Islanders, the Senators, the Rangers, whatever the first round and (hopefully) beyond may hold.
Because even with all the stomach-dropping dips and dives this season has held, this ride has been too fun to end it now. Let's go again.