Last season featured a host of pleasant developments for a Washington Capitals team that is favored to reach the Stanley Cup finals this time around. Despite ending their 2015 playoff run early, management hopes to improve upon their regular season success. The goal, to march deep into the playoffs behind new additions T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, both forwards. Williams in particular is renowned for elevating his game in the postseason.
Coach Barry Trotz brought immediate stability in his first year behind the bench. He did not hesitate to commit to Braden Holtby as his number one goaltender, and Holtby rewarded his faith by becoming one of the league’s top netminders.
Defenseman Brooks Orpik was his usual fearsome self in his first season with the Capitals, and Matt Niskanen brought skill and a good two-way game to the blueline.
Captain Alex Ovechkin continued at a superstar pace scoring 53 goals; Nicklas Backstrom again put up a boatload of points as the most underrated player in the league; John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Marcus Johansson and rookies Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov were all key contributors as well.
But once again, Washington faces questions about its ability to get it done in the playoffs.
Enter Williams, a crafty veteran winger who is considered one of the greatest clutch performers in NHL history. Yes, Williams is that good under pressure. He shares a playoff record with former Edmonton Oilers great Glenn Anderson for the most Game 7 goals in NHL history with seven, and has the record outright for most Game 7 points with 14. He won the Conn Smythe trophy for most valuable player in the 2014 Stanley Cup finals with the Los Angeles Kings. He has won three Stanley Cups overall, two with the Kings and one with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.
The Capitals improved their playoff outlook significantly by signing Williams, who has been dubbed “Mr. Game 7.”
It was Williams’ first time testing unrestricted free agency, and he had several suitors, including the Kings. “You look at the city, and also what the team needs and how close they are to winning a championship, which is very important,” Williams said in choosing Washington.
“At the end of the day, it was important to be in a city that is good for my family and a team where I believe I could fit in and a team that is close to winning.”
Despite his elite playoff achievements, Williams said he is just trying to fit in with his new teammates. He even expressed a certain degree of weariness in discussing his past playoff performances, stressing that each year is different and the focus has to be on getting to the postseason in the first place.
“The hardest part is getting into the playoffs,” said Williams, who knows this all too well after playing for two teams that did not make the playoffs the year after winning the Stanley Cup – the Kings last season and the Hurricanes in 2007.
Williams still allowed a view into how he approaches pivotal matches. “When your back is against the wall you’ve got to find ways to bring your best. You don’t want to err on the side of caution. You want to go out there and get it and make an impact. You don’t want to be thinking ‘I don’t want to make a mistake.’ You want to be thinking ‘I want to do something positive for this team.’”
Oshie has also experienced recent success on a big stage. In the 2014 Winter Olympics, he was the key performer in the American’s 3-2 victory over Russia in the preliminary round, converting four of six shootout attempts. Oshie, who was traded for in a deal that sent Troy Brouwer to St. Louis, is known as an intense competitor and clutch performer.
Together with Williams, the two newcomers bring a special attitude to Washington. Williams is also known as a tenacious player who thrives on puck possession.
Washington will spend the first part of the season adjusting to its new roster. The team lost key players Brouwer, Mike Green, Joel Ward, Eric Fehr and John Erskine in the offseason.
The Capitals have an impressive mix of grit and talent up front, and the defense corps is an experienced, mobile unit. With another standout season from Holtby and the additions of Williams and Oshie, it’s not hard to see why many pundits are picking the Caps to finally burst through and reach the finals.
“It’s get in first, then worry about what you’re going to do once you’re there,” said Williams. “There’s a lot of teams that could possibly win and we’re certainly one of them.”
Don’t miss the Capitals’ season opener on Saturday October 10 against the New Jersey Devils at 7 p.m.