Freed from the weight of the world of being Stanley Cup favorites, the Washington Capitals are playing like a team eager to prove something.
Prove doubters wrong, prove their championship window hasn't closed and, most notably, prove they can get over the playoff hump that has vexed them over the past decade. Led by top NHL goal scorer Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals go into their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets having won 12 of their final 15 games and feeling confident about this spring despite a series of early playoff exits.
"I hope best hockey is going to be in the playoffs," Ovechkin said Saturday night. "I think the balance on our team right now is pretty good and pretty high. That's very good thing to go into the playoffs because in playoffs you never know what's going to happen. Maybe one shift can change the whole series. I think we're ready for it."
Few expected the Capitals to win the Metropolitan Division again after losing Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Nate Schmidt, Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk and Daniel Winnik from last year's team that won the Presidents' Trophy for the second consecutive season. Coach Barry Trotz and players miss no opportunity to bring up all the preseason predictions about them being a playoff bubble team.
Of course, when they sat at 11-10-1 just before Thanksgiving, those lower expectations looked accurate. General manager Brian MacLellan insists he was never worried — and his team's 38-16-6 record the rest of the way was the fourth best in the NHL in that time behind only Boston, Nashville and Winnipeg.
The Capitals don't have the playoff buzz of the Bruins, Predators, Jets, Tampa Bay Lightning or the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, but they have as good a chance as anyone of reaching the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in the Ovechkin era.
"We have a chance to go the distance," MacLellan said. "I don't know that we're as deep or as experienced as we were last year, but I think the whole league is a little less of that. There's probably a couple teams that are a little deeper that might have a chance, theoretically, of going farther, but I think we're in the mix with the high-end teams."
Everyone thought the Capitals were the highest of high-end teams in 2016 and 2017, and they lost to the eventual Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round each time. Williams has implied that favorite status didn't suit the Capitals well, and Trotz said "the crown is quite heavy" for a team expected to win.
"I think there was some external pressure that creeped in the room," veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "I think maybe as a veteran group, we probably don't want to admit that it affected us. I think at times it definitely did."
Finishing in first place puts some pressure on the Capitals, but it's nothing like in years past. More than anything, there's urgency to win with Ovechkin 32 and having three years remaining on his contract.
"We all know what we're playing for is to win a championship and I'm hoping we do it this year," owner Ted Leonsis said. "I'm hoping we do it within his contract time."
Columbus is a tough first-round matchup for the Capitals, but their play down the stretch makes a long playoff run possible if they get strong goaltending from Braden Holtby or Philipp Grubauer. From the net out, Washington looks like a contender thanks to the trade-deadline additions of defensemen Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerabek and the play of centers Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom.
"We're playing the right way a lot of the time," Holtby said. "It's more where you're at as a team and I think we're continuing to build and push forward in the right direction. We have a lot of guys contributing right now. It's a good sign."
Washington's road to the elusive Cup could go through Pittsburgh and then Boston, Tampa Bay or Toronto. Perhaps the expectations being on those teams instead of the Capitals isn't such a bad thing.
"I think it's a good thing because I think last two years we were on top of the league and we win Presidents' Trophy," Ovechkin said. "Everybody thought we were going to be unstoppable in playoffs and we didn't. ... We're going to do our thing and we're going to have success."