Capitals poised to make good on Cup favourite status

The Hockey Central panel previews the Stanley Cup Playoffs series between the Presidents Trophy winning Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers.

WASHINGTON — There’s no sign of snow, the sun is shining, and the temperature is as pleasant as it can be this far north of the 49th parallel. It seems as though winter now resides exclusively at Verizon Center, where the Washington Capitals aim to keep it alive until mid-June.

It was during the coldest months of the year that the Capitals affirmed that they had a real chance of becoming the franchise’s first edition to make it all the way.

This team’s status as the odds-on favourite to win this year’s Stanley Cup tournament was confirmed by a near flawless season that saw Washington collect 120 of 164 available points in the standings. Its validity as a contender was punctuated by top-five finishes in nearly every statistical category.

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The Capitals showed an unparalleled versatility by scoring four or more goals in 29 of their games and by going 27-6-7 in one-goal games, which speaks to what kind of challenge they’ll pose to any opponent.

Also lending to their legitimacy is the dominance Washington displayed in achieving the NHL’s second-stingiest defence (2.33 goals against), a credit to goaltender Braden Holtby.

Bonus: Every member of the team is healthy and available in what promises to be the most grueling physical challenge they face this year.

The current obstacle that stands in the way of a Capitals Cup win are the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Flyers, who were the final team in the Eastern Conference to qualify for the post-season, went 15-5-3 down the stretch. Led by the line of Jakub Voracek, Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds, they climbed their way up the standings.

Philadelphia goaltender Michal Neuvirth had the NHL’s fourth-best save percentage up until the moment he went down with a lower-body injury on March 10. Backup Steve Mason then took the ball and ran with it.

Mason will start Game 1 for the Flyers on Thursday night with Neuvirth providing an insurance policy.

Philadelphia will be looking to pay tribute to the team’s founder, Ed Snider, who died on Monday after a battle with cancer.

Those are just a few of the reasons this Flyers team is not to be underestimated.

But Washington’s biggest obstacle has to be the pressure they face to break free from a pattern of falling short of expectations in recent years during the playoffs.

The last time the Capitals finished with the NHL’s best record (2010) they were undone by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens in Round 1. Subsequent playoff losses to the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers led to an overhaul of the front office and some significant turnover with the roster.

With Brian McLellan as the team’s general manager, Barry Trotz as coach and superstar talent in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, there’s a sense things will be different this time around. Add Cup-winners Justin Williams and Brooks Orpik to the mix as calming voices in the room and Washington could have a recipe for success.

Decisions have been made this season with the sole purpose of capturing hockey’s most prolific prize. Trotz said there would be no champagne celebration when the Capitals clinched the Presidents’ Trophy 13 days before season’s end. Extended rest was also offered to injured players who would have been forced to return much sooner were it not for the team’s strong position being secured so early.

Perhaps the greatest example of taking the long view was Trotz’s decision to keep Holtby from the team’s meaningless final regular season game, depriving him of a chance to clinch what would’ve been an NHL-record 49 wins in a season.

There’s a mentality the Capitals have adopted that supports the notion they’re ready to ride out whatever storm might be on the horizon.

For now the skies are clear, the sun’s beating down and the temperature’s rising in D.C.

The Capitals’ bid for the Stanley Cup is underway.

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