- The Washington Times
Sunday, May 1, 2022

Right before Alex Ovechkin went on to the ice for Sunday’s practice, the Capitals star turned to coach Peter Laviolette and said, “I’m ready to go.” For the next 45 minutes or so, Ovechkin looked like his normal self — even firing off one-timers from his usual spot as the session winded down. 

The return comes right on time. With the regular season over, the Capitals begin the playoffs Tuesday with a Game 1 matchup against the Florida Panthers

Neither Ovechkin nor Laviolette outright said the Russian would officially be available for the start of the postseason after missing Washington’s last three games with an upper-body injury. But the comments appeared to be more in the vein of typical playoff subterfuge rather than an actual mystery. 

Ovechkin, who scored 50 goals in 77 games this season, didn’t even do much to hide it: Shortly after saying “we’ll see” when asked about his status, the 36-year-old confirmed that he would have played in at least one of the team’s last few contests if it had been the postseason.

Even with Ovechkin’s looming return, Washington will have its hands full. The Panthers had the league’s best record this past season, taking home the Presidents’ Trophy with a league-high 122 points and 58 wins. A team with the league’s best record hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 2013, but the Panthers could break that trend, thanks to a lethal offense that scored a league-high 337 goals. Florida opens the best-of-seven series as the significant favorite. 

In the regular season, Washington went 1-1-1 against the Panthers in games that were closely contested. All three matchups were decided by a goal. But the teams haven’t played since late November, and the Capitals have experienced plenty of twists and turns since then.

Look no further than the last few months. Washington ended the season on a four-game losing streak, but before that, the team had appeared to hit its stride with a 7-1-1 record in mid-April. At times, the Capitals have looked like one of the best teams in hockey. At others, they appeared headed for yet another first-round exit.

Which Capitals team is going to show up? 

“Obviously in the season, there’s been tons of ups and downs, there’s been a lot of guys in and out,” Capitals winger Tom Wilson said. “But I’m excited about this group, I’m excited about being fully healthy and having everyone in there in their right spot and ready to go. 

“It’s something that if you’re hitting your stride and you’re playing well and you’re playing with confidence, it doesn’t really matter where your seed is in the playoffs, you’ve got to be ready to go.”

Laviolette noted that it will take multiple facets to force an upset. The Panthers scored a combined 13 goals in their three meetings against the Capitals — making defense for Washington a priority. But Laviolette said his team will have to create “good offense,” something they previously did against Florida by scoring four goals in each contest. 

Goaltending could swing the series. Laviolette declined to name a starter for Game 1, but Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov both failed to seize the job during the regular season. Florida’s Sergei Bobrovsky, meanwhile, has a shaky playoff history — giving up a .899 save percentage and 3.24 goals per game in 41 contests.

Despite Florida’s record, the Capitals understand better than most that a team’s regular-season success doesn’t necessarily translate to the postseason. The Capitals, after all, won the Presidents’ Trophy twice in the Ovechkin era — only to lose in the second round each time. When Washington finally won the Stanley Cup in 2018, the Capitals didn’t have the league’s best record. 

“Everyone’s in the playoffs, anything can happen,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “So I think just knowing that and going into this as of right now the series is tied. Obviously, we believe in ourselves and we’re going to do everything we can to win the series.”

“In the playoffs, it’s going to be different,” Ovechkin said. 

The Capitals, though, haven’t made it out of the first round since they last won the Cup. Last year, they were bounced out of the playoffs by the Boston Bruins in five games, while the New York Islanders(in five games) and the Carolina Hurricanes (in seven games) eliminated Washington in the two years before that.

Washington was rarely in danger of missing the postseason this year, but squandered a chance to avoid facing the Panthers because of its losing streak to end the season. Just two more wins would have set up a showdown with the Rangers.

Now, the Capitals are getting ready to face Florida instead.

“We have to take two steps, right?” Ovechkin said. “The first step is making the playoffs and then win the Cup. So we just have to take no excuses.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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