The Washington Capitals and their fans are spoiled.
Since a stirring comeback to win the Southeast Division and make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2007-08 for the first time since 2000-01 and 2002-03, respectively, the Caps have been one of the NHL's best regular season teams. If one needs proof, just look the recently-raised banners.
A President's Trophy in 2009-10 after a 54-win season, four consecutive Southeast Division championships, two consecutive No. 1 seeds in the Eastern Conference Playoffs and a victory over the rival Pittsburgh Penguins at the 2011 Winter Classic are on their resume. A lack of discernible postseason success aside, Washington and its fans have been treated to pleasant 82-game schedules in recent seasons.
That, however, has not been the case this year, though it started that way. A 7-0-0 record to open the season had the Caps in familiar territory, but a 5-9-1 tailspin over the next month ended the tenure of Bruce Boudreau as head coach, one of the principal figures in Washington's resurrection. In stepped former Capital Dale Hunter, who the front office believed would give the current Capitals an identity.
Under Hunter, the Capitals have turned into an industrious team that has relied on forechecking and cycling instead of simply outrunning-and gunning the opposition, but like Boudreau's final days, they have not sustained much momentum. Yet, despite a season that has featured changes in coaching and philosophy as well as injuries to key players, the Caps are in a good place entering Friday.
After Wednesday's 3-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens, Washington is tied with the Florida Panthers with 52 points, but sits in first place in the Southeast Division based on tiebreakers, a familiar position for the Caps nonetheless. The Caps are also only 10 points behind the top-seeded New York Rangers
One could look at last season as a possible prototype for what the Caps are going through. After a fast start (18-6-2), the Caps lost eight straight (0-6-2) before turning things around at the start of 2011. The Caps ultimately won nine straight games from late February to mid-March and earned the Eastern Conference's top seed.
As noted before, Washington started hot (7-0-0) before cooling off considerably (5-9-1), but have turned it around lately, having won eight of 11 after Wednesday's win, including four of six without Nicklas Backstrom, sidelined with a head injury, and Mike Green, who underwent abdominal surgery Tuesday.
Looking at things at a more micro level, through 45 games this season, the Caps have scored the same number of goals that they did through 45 games last season (128). In fact, the Caps have one more win this season than they did at this point last season (25), though they have three fewer points. The similarities are endless and obscure; against Montreal Wednesday, the Caps won 3-0 with a season-low 16 shots. Last season, the Caps' season-low shot total was 12. They won that game 3-0.
All it takes is a little perspective.
With the pressures that the Caps face as individuals and as a whole, it is promising that when faced with arguably their roughest season as a unit, they have stayed afloat instead of drowning. There is still plenty of cause for concern (eight wins through 21 road games; the possibility of Alex Ovechkin's second career-worst output in as many seasons; the respective health of Backstrom and Green), but adversity is a great teacher.
Before he left, Boudreau said of one of Washington's early opponents that "a wounded animal is the most dangerous foe." The Capitals are now that wounded animal. The hunted have become the hunters (no pun intended) and fighting to keep themselves alive will ultimately benefit the Caps not just this season, but in future seasons as well.
"It's something that will only make you stronger," Jay Beagle said of the team's rough start December 29. "Any time you go through hard times, if you don't fold the tent, it's going to make you stronger. The fact that we're working harder everyday and coming to the rink more prepared and more focused, we're just getting stronger as a team and individuals every day. We're going to be dangerous."
Caps fans should take that message to heart. All things considered, they currently aren't in that bad of a position.
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