Capitals look to reverse fortunes in Stanley Cup playoffs

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How this Caps team is different

So much went right for Russian sniper Alex Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals this season that they might finally be set to reverse years of postseason heartbreak when the Stanley Cup playoffs open this week.

Ovechkin was the National Hockey League's top scorer for a fourth straight year with 50 goals, goalie Braden Holtby tied the all-time mark for single-season wins with 48 and Washington won the Presidents' Trophy for finishing first overall.

The 16-team playoffs, with the winner of four grueling best-of-seven series earning the coveted Stanley Cup in June, open on Wednesday with three games. Washington begin their series on Thursday against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Among the other key matchups, Canadian Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins will face the New York Rangers, while the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks will start on the road against the St. Louis Blues.

Ovechkin and the Capitals have first-hand knowledge that a successful regular season is no guarantee of playoff success.

Since the Russian standout joined Washington in 2005, the Capitals have never been beyond the second round and have lost a decisive seventh game in three of the past four years.

"You have to have luck on your side, you have to be healthy, and you have to be focusing one hundred percent, because the playoffs are totally different hockey," said Ovechkin. "Every game is like the last game."

LISTING THE HIGHEST-PAID NHL PLAYERS THIS SEASON:

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Highest-paid NHL players
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Capitals look to reverse fortunes in Stanley Cup playoffs

#19t Marian Hossa -- $7.9 million

Team: Chicago Blackhawks

Position: Left Wing

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $7.9 million salary

One thing to know: In the seventh season of another heavily front-loaded contract, Hossa is nearing the end of his big pay days as his salary dips to $4 million next season and $1 million in each of the four seasons after that. If he is still around to see the end of the deal, he will be 42 when his contract expires.

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

#19t Rick Nash -- $7.9 million

Team: Columbus Blue Jackets

Position: Left Wing

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $7.9 million salary

One thing to know: Despite rumors of a potential trade this off-season, the oft-criticized Nash is still with the Rangers, in the sixth year, of the 8-year, $62.4 million contract he originally signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

#16t Dion Phaneuf -- $8 million

Team: Toronto Maple Leafs

Position: Defenseman

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $6 million salary, $2 million signing bonus

One thing to know: Phaneuf’s 7-year, $49 million contract was considered a big reason for the demise of former Leafs GM Dave Nonis, who was fired at the end of last season.

(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

#16t Vladimir Tarasenko -- $8 million

Team: St. Louis Blues

Position: Right Wing

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $8 million salary

One thing to know: Tarasenko signed an 8-year, $60 million extension this summer, despite being just 23 years old and still years from unrestricted free agency. Sean McIdoe described the contract as “one that largely redefines the market for young players."

(AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

#16t Derek Stepan -- $8 million

(AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

#15 Sergei Bobrovsky -- $8.5 million

Team: Columbus Blue Jackets

Position: Goaltender

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $8.5 million salary

One thing to know: Bobrovsky is one of only two goalies on this list, however, his 4-year, $29.7 million contract ranks just 13th among all net keepers.

(AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

#14 Patrice Bergeron -- $8.75 million

Team: Boston Bruins

Position: Center

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $8.75 million salary

One thing to know: Bergeron’s 8-year, $55 million contract extension, signed in 2013, means the center will likely play his entire career with the Bruins.

(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

#10t Corey Perry -- $9 million

Team: Anaheim Ducks

Position: Right Wing

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $5 million salary, $4 million signing bonus

One thing to know: Perry is in the third year of an 8-year, $69 million contract. His $8.6 million salary cap figure is the 7th-largest in the NHL.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

#10t Claude Giroux -- $9 million

 (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

#10t Zach Parise -- $9 million

Team: Minnesota Wild

Position: Left Wing

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $9 million salary

One thing to know: Like many in 2012 and 2013, the deals signed by Parise and teammate Ryan Suter are front-loaded, with the pair looking forward to $1 million salaries in the final years when they will be in their late-30s.

(AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)

#10t Ryan Suter -- $9 million

Team: Minnesota Wild

Position: Defenseman

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $9 million salary

One thing to know: Proving the NHL likes to do the teammates-get-equal-pay thing, Suter and teammate Zach Parise signed identical 13-year, $98 million contracts in 2012.

(AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)

#9 Ryan Getzlaf -- $9.25 million

Team: Anaheim Ducks

Position: Center

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $9.25 million salary

One thing to know: Getzlaf’s 8-year contract includes a no-move clause, meaning he cannot be traded or sent to the minors.

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

#7t Evgeni Malkin -- $9.5 million

Team: Pittsburgh Penguins

Position: Center

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $9.5 million salary

One thing to know: After signing an 8-year, $76 million extension in 2013, Malkin’s dad sparked a controversy by claiming his son had turned down a bigger offer from the Dallas Stars, even though Malkin still had one year left on his prior deal.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

#7t Eric Staal -- $9.5 million

Team: Carolina Hurricanes

Position: Left Wing

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $9.5 million salary

One thing to know: Staal is in the final year of his 7-year, $57.8 million contract. Despite talks of a possible extension, nothing has come to fruition yet.

(AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

#5t Alex Ovechkin -- $10 million

Team: Washington Capitals

Position: Left Wing

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $10 million salary

One thing to know: The 13-year, $124 million contract signed by Ovechkin in 2008 is still the largest in the NHL. However, unlike some bigger deals signed later, his was not front-loaded.

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Team: New York Rangers

Position: Goaltender

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $10 million salary

One thing to know: Even with the new limitations on contracts, Lundqvist’s new 7-year, $59.5 million contract is proof that teams still like to front-load these deals. Of the nearly $60 million, $39.5 million will be paid in the first four seasons.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

#4 Sidney Crosby -- $12 million

Team: Pittsburgh Penguins

Position: Center

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $12 million salary

One thing to know: Like Shea Weber, Crosby signed his extension just before the new CBA, and his deal is also heavily front-loaded. This is the final of three seasons with $12 million salaries. Starting next season, Crosby’s salary starts to shrink, eventually reaching just $3 million in 2022-23, when he will be 35.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

#2t Patrick Kane -- $13.8 million

Team: Chicago Blackhawks

Position: Right Wing

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $6.8 million salary, $7.0 million signing bonus

One thing to know: The $84 million contracts for Kane and teammate Jonathan Toews are also the largest in the NHL since the new CBA was ratified in early 2013.

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

#2t Jonathan Toews -- $13.8 million

Team: Chicago Blackhawks

Position: Center

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $6.8 million salary, $7.0 million signing bonus

One thing to know: Toews and teammate Patrick Kane signed identical 8-year, $84 million contracts prior to the 2014-15 season. Their $10.5 million cap hits are the largest in the NHL.

(AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

#1 Shea Weber -- $14 million

Team: Nashville Predators

Position: Defenseman

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $1 million salary, $13 million signing bonus

One thing to know: Weber was one of the last NHL players to exploit a loophole in the old collective bargaining agreement, signing a $110 million contract. The catch is that the deal is 14 years long and heavily front-loaded, not expiring until he is 40 years. The benefit to the team was to spread the salary cap hit out over many years. This practice was nixed in the newest CBA, with contracts now limited to eight years.

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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In the past 10 seasons, only the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings and 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks have finished first overall in the regular season and gone on to win the Stanley Cup.

"Every player that's in that room, growing up, no matter when they started playing the game, they were playing for the Stanley Cup, they never played for the Presidents' Trophy," said Capitals coach Barry Trotz.

"We all would like to be in that position to play for the one Cup that we all dreamed about when you're playing on the streets or in the hallways of the house or hotel or whatever. That's the one that we want to play for."

The emergence of center Evgeny Kuznetsov, in his second full season, and addition of T.J. Oshie from a trade with the St. Louis Blues has buoyed the hopes of the Eastern Conference's Capitals as they have provided secondary scoring to Ovechkin.

An Eastern Conference team has not won the Stanley Cup since the Boston Bruins in 2011 as Chicago (2015, 2013) and the Los Angeles Kings (2014, 2012) have won the last four championships.

Chicago, looking to become the NHL's first repeat champion since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings, lost key players in Patrick Sharp, Brad Richards and Brandon Saad last offseason through trades and free agency to stay within the NHL's salary limits.

But they still have captain Jonathan Toews, forwards Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa as well as defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, a core group that has won three Stanley Cups together in the past six years.

However, the group has played together in 65 postseason games during the previous three years and will need to dig deep if they are to make another deep run.

For the first time in 46 years, the playoffs will not have a Canadian-based team competing. Back in 1970, there only were two Canadian teams in the a 12-team league, compared to seven in the 30-team NHL today.

Detroit dropped their final two regular season games but still squeaked into the playoffs and extended the longest active streak of postseason appearances in the history of professional North American sports to 25 years.

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