Tired of rolling over the NHL in the regular season and falling short in the playoffs, the Washington Capitals went to great lengths to make sure their best players won't be tired this time around.
Alex Ovechkin saw the lowest ice time of his career, Nicklas Backstrom the lowest since his rookie year and Braden Holtby played fewer minutes than he ever has as a starting goaltender in an 82-game season. Balancing out the minutes and workload was an organizational effort to gear up for the playoffs and give the stacked Capitals the best chance to finally lift the Stanley Cup.
"We tried different things," Ovechkin said Tuesday. "I think right now we're in better shape than we were last year and mentally-wise, as well, because you can see we have four lines who can create and four lines who can be out there and get the job done, it doesn't matter which situation."
To prove the plan worked, the Capitals will have to get the job done against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round beginning Thursday and advance past the second round for the first time in the Ovechkin era. But two months before the Cup is handed out, there's already evidence that Washington is primed to win the first title in franchise history.
After averaging 21:18 in his first 11 NHL seasons, Ovechkin played 18:22 and ramped that up over the course of the year. His 1,506 total minutes were the fewest he's played in an 82-game season and yet he played in all of them.
The Russian superstar had 14 points in his final 15 regular-season games and contributed with some big hits and plays that don't show up on the scoresheet.
"The biggest thing is that he looks fresh, he looks fast and he looks like Alex," coach Barry Trotz said. "When he sets the tone and he's saying, 'OK, I'm here and you're going to have to play against me all night,' the guy on the other side is going: 'Oh boy. He's engaged and he's going to be handful.' And when he's a handful, that's really good for the Washington Capitals."
What's really good for the Capitals is that Ovechkin has helped Backstrom and fellow linemate T.J. Oshie play better along the way. At even-strength and on the power play, with the trade-deadline addition of Kevin Shattenkirk, the Capitals have the high-end skill to deserve being favored to come out of the Eastern Conference.
To do that they'll need the best from Holtby, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner with the best playoff numbers of any active goaltender who started 63 games this season, three fewer than last year and nine fewer than 2014-15. Holtby faced 112 fewer shots, and less wear and tear could be the difference if the Capitals make an extended run.
"Holts, I think his workload is much better," Trotz said. "We had the five-day break and just down the stretch with the number of games, strategically we got him up to where we wanted to."
Down the stretch the Capitals arguably played some of their best hockey of the season, going 11-2-1 in their final 14 games, a stark contrast to their 7-5-4 finish last year before a second-round exit. Backstrom senses a good feeling around the locker room this year, which well-traveled Daniel Winnik believes is a product of momentum that can translate to the playoffs.
"It matters how you play before the playoffs," Winnik said. "I think Pittsburgh's proved that, a lot of previous winners — L.A. I think playing the way we are hopefully is good foreshadowing."
Trotz said the Capitals needing to fend off the defending champion Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets to win the Metropolitan Division helped them close strong. Aside from defenseman John Carlson, whose status for Game 1 was uncertain, Washington is also largely healthy after being spared the usual attrition of an 82-game season.
That was by design.
"I think the whole team feels fresh," Backstrom said. "We're all healthy and that's important, and we don't have any injuries for now. That's great. That's how it should be right now. You need other players, too, to be successful in the playoffs. For now it's great. Hopefully we can stay that way."
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