After 36 years without a championship - including an all-time stinker of a 1974-75 debut season in which they won just eight times in 80 games - fans of the Washington Capitals must be wondering whether this is finally the year when it all comes to together in a Stanley Cup climax. There are a lot of things to like about the Eastern Conference-leading Capitals, who tied a team record with their 10th consecutive win, a 3-2 success over Tampa Bay Lightning, on Sunday night.
For starters, they have got a 23-point bulge in the race for the Southeast Division title. The other teams in the division - the Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers and the Lightning - are much more likely to miss the post-season altogether than mount any kind of challenge for the division title. With a third of the campaign yet to be played, Washington are secure in the knowledge they are virtually guaranteed divisional supremacy and the top-three play-off seed that comes with it.
It has been a long time coming for a franchise that missed the play-offs in their first eight seasons and advanced beyond the second round of the post-season just once in their first 23 years. Even Washington's lone trip to the Stanley Cup final in 1998 saw them unceremoniously swept by Detroit in four forgettable games. They missed the play-offs the next year, failing to build any momentum on their first significant foray into the post-season.
Their first-round victory over the New York Rangers last spring - in which they rallied from a three-games-to-one deficit - was the Capitals' first play-off series win since then. The way things are going, Washington may finally be ready to build on their success rather than stumble backwards. If the Caps' recent play is any indication, the team that pushed the Pittsburgh Penguins, the eventual cup champions, to a seventh game in the second round last season might be poised for even greater things.
They are on fire offensively, with 214 goals in 55 games. Washington have 27 more goals - about half-a-goal per game - than the NHL's second highest scoring team, the San Jose Sharks, and 39 more than the second highest scoring team in the East, Pittsburgh. Alex Ovechkin's team can score - and it is not just the 24-year-old who is doing it. Three other young players - forwards Nicklas Backstrom, 22, and Alexander Semin, 25, and defenceman Mike Green, 24 - are on pace for 80-plus point seasons, and no fewer than 10 Capitals players have a chance of scoring 20 goals.
In fact, Washington are on pace for 320 goals this season, which would be the most by any NHL team since 1995-96. The down side in DC? It is no secret - the Caps' defence and goaltending are somewhat suspect, and those just happen to be the two areas that play a big part in post-season success. The goaltender Semyon Varlamov, last season's surprise play-off hero, has suffered through an injury-hit campaign, and supposed starter Jose Theodore has also been in and out of the line-up.
Theodore should be back soon enough, but the Caps are hoping for a healthy return from Varlamov, who is 12-1-2 on the season and his goals-against average (2.21) and save percentage (92.4) are significantly superior to Theodore's numbers (2.86 and 90.6). Look for the Caps to be shopping for a bona fide stay-at-home defenceman - or two - and maybe even some netminding help between now and the NHL trade deadline.
If they make the right moves before March 3, they may be marching in a parade in June. @Email:email@example.com