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Sentry staff reporter Topher Wagner (right) and Washington Capitals right winger Justin Williams (left)

Sentry staff reporter Topher Wagner (right) and Washington Capitals right winger Justin Williams (left)

Photo courtesy of Topher Wagner

Photo courtesy of Topher Wagner

Sentry staff reporter Topher Wagner (right) and Washington Capitals right winger Justin Williams (left)

Topher Wagner, Sentry Staff Reporter

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In seasons past, a President’s Trophy clinching win would have the absolute highlight of a great season for the Washington Capitals. However, during an incredible 56-18-8 season, the Caps’ 4-1 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets to officially have the number one overall seed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs seemed inevitable. This year, the goals are higher with Coach Barry Trotz and players on the team believing that this team has the potential to make a run at the Stanley Cup itself.

After last year’s 3-1 series lead turned into a monumental collapse in the Eastern Conference Semifinals vs the New York Rangers, Trotz knew that his team needed more experience and veteran leadership on the team to prevent that from happening again. To address these needs, the Capitals acquired multiple wingers during Free Agency, trading for T.J. Oshie from the St Louis Blues and signing Justin Williams. Oshie has extensive National Hockey League experience on the St. Louis Blues and in the Olympics. On the other hand, Williams has been nicknamed Mr. Game 7 throughout his career because of clutch goals, leading to a perfect game seven record in the playoffs along with three Stanley Cup wins.

“I think people have been extremely receptive to me and the other new player, Oshie. We’ve come in and tried to find a role and a fit, and I think that we’ve done that, and the fans have embraced how hard we’ve tried to fit in,” said Williams in an exclusive interview.

Both have had very successful seasons, with Williams recording 52 points in 82 games played, and Oshie obtaining 51 in 80 games played. Points are given to players individually, one point for goals and assists.  Along with Williams and Oshie, winger Alex Ovechkin, center Evgeny Kuznetsov and goaltender Braden Holtby are other key parts of why the Capitals are one of the eminent favorites to hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history. The breakout season that Kuznetsov has had should not be understated, as the 23 year old was first on the Capitals in points and tenth overall in the league with 77.

“Obviously, Williams and Oshie are becoming some of the big names on the Caps this year, and rightfully deserved. I have particularly noticed the improvement of Kuznetsov. He was good last year but has been great this year,” said fan, junior Parker Christian.

This season has not only been an impressive one for the team, but many players have also reached great individual milestones. Williams played in his one thousandth career hockey game in the last game of the year, while other Caps have hit impressive marks on the year.  Once again, Ovechkin led the NHL with 50 goals in the regular season, while Braden Holtby tied Martin Brodeur’s historic single season record for goalie wins with 48 wins throughout the year.

Although he has had experience with many phenomenal players, Williams still believes that something sticks out about Ovechkin and Holtby.

“I’ve had the privilege of playing with a lot of great hockey players throughout my years and they’re certainly both up there. At this point, I’m obviously a little impartial to the people that I’ve won championships with, I hope this team can do something special, and I want to be a part of that. And those are two great players that we’re going to need on top of their games for us do it,” said Williams.

The Caps will need all of their stars firing on all cylinders in order to make a run at the Stanley Cup. Sunday April 24 capped a hard fought first round series against their bitter rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, one which the Caps won four games to two. However, it was anything but an easy matchup, with both teams having dominant stretches throughout the opening round. Propelled by strong play by Holtby and Ovechkin, the Capitals took the first three games of the series, outscoring the Flyers 12 goals to 2. Then, in the fourth game of the series, with the Capitals prepared to sweep, Flyers Coach Dave Hakstol made a decision that would turn the series around.

After starting Flyers goaltender Steve Mason struggled early on, former Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth was given the start for game four. Neuvirth played admirably down the stretch, making a combined 75 saves in game four and five to extend their season, despite the Flyers offense only delivering four goals on a meager 36 shots in those games. Fans in the nation’s capital began to panic as memories of past playoff collapses began to haunt their thoughts–a once surefire three to zero series lead was on the verge of being tied in Philadelphia.

Finally, the Caps closed out the series in game six, as Nicklas Backstrom had the only goal of the game while Holtby delivered with 26 saves. Although the offense went cold in the last games of the series, the Capitals must feel confident in their defense entering the next round, especially their penalty kill unit. The Flyers only had one goal in 24 chances on the power play in the series, including an extended five on three power play in the decisive game six.

After a hard hitting series in which defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Brooks Orpik were injured, fans can breath a sigh of relief, as the Caps will have several days to rest and heal up before facing the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. After entering the playoffs on a hot streak, the Penguins have not cooled down, dominating Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers in a five game series. In what will be a tough second round series, the Capitals defense and Holtby will have to continue their stellar play versus the high scoring Penguins. With Cup aspirations on the line for both, it will certainly be a hard fought series for the long time rivals.   

One of this team’s top reasons for success this season has been their dominant play at home at the Verizon Center. Many Caps fans pride themselves on being the loudest and most enthusiastic fans in D.C., trying to distract the opposing team while cheering on their boys in red with ear splitting chants throughout the arena.

“Familiarity is key to a home rink. You know the bounces, you know the boards, you know the arena, you feel comfortable there. And the fans are great. The fans are into it. When we need a little pep, or when we’re down a goal or two, hopefully they can help us rise to the occasion,” said Williams.

After a regular season where the Capitals absolutely dominated their competition, expectations amongst the fans and players is clearly high to deliver a Stanley Cup to Washington.

“They’ve brought in some really good defensemen, I think they’re a more complete team. If they play the way that they should and they don’t tighten up too much if they get a loss here or there, I think they are very capable of winning the Cup,” said Capitals fan and history teacher Andrew Prantner.

When it truly comes down to any sports in general, the most important factor of a good team is their ability to work together.

“The way we get along off the ice is very key. When everyone gets along, that’s great for the team because you always try harder for the guys you care about. I came here for that main reason, to win a championship. And I think that this team has a real good chance to do it,” said Williams.

With optimism like that, who says dreams can’t become realities? If this Capitals team can be the first to take the Cup to D.C., they won’t just go down as a good team, but a historic one. Isn’t that the magic of the NHL playoffs?

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