From the start, Spencer Carbery believed in his Caps. He was right.

From the start, Spencer Carbery believed in his Caps. He was right.

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

In the bright, optimistic days of early October, Spencer Carbery sat back in his chair and made a proclamation. The rookie head coach of the Washington Capitals was visiting The Washington Post for a preseason roundtable with reporters and editors. He was one week away from coaching his first regular season game, and when he spoke, he didn’t couch his statement with any qualifiers or hypotheticals.

With a quiet, assured confidence, he didn’t need any.

“I still feel like we have a very competitive team,” Carbery said. “I understand what’s going on from our roster’s age and where we need to go, building for the future and integrating young players, but I still, as the head coach, have a lot of belief in our group. I think we can be threading the needle and also be very, very competitive and be a playoff team. That’s what I believe. … Whatever you want to say about last year, I still think that we’re capable of being a playoff team.”

In the preseason, every team believes it is capable of making the playoffs. Every new coach believes he’s positioned to right the wrongs of the previous regime. At the time, Carbery’s statement rang more like the bravado, if not naiveté, of a young, first-year coach who had little idea how difficult the road ahead would be.

But six months and 10 days after Carbery said those words, his Capitals proved him right. With a win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday, Washington secured the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and is back in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Capitals, who missed the playoffs last season, have the worst goal differential, minus-37, of any playoff team in the salary cap era. In nine of their last 10 regular season games, and 42 of 82 overall, they scored two or fewer goals. Their power play, which spent so much of the season near the bottom of the league, only improved to 17th — still in the bottom half.

And they’re in the playoffs.

“I believed in this group the whole way through,” Charlie Lindgren, who emerged as the Capitals’ No. 1 goaltender and sometimes single-handedly kept them afloat, said Tuesday. “Obviously, there were times where maybe it looked like it was maybe going to be a little bit of a stretch, but certainly there was no give-up at all in this group. It says a lot about the guys in the locker room. All the credit goes to them.”

In early October, Carbery was banking on having Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov as his top two centers, providing a veteran, Stanley Cup-winning foundation for their new coach to build on. Backstrom made it just eight games before stepping away in early November. Things didn’t go as planned with Kuznetsov, either, with a benching in December, a stint in the NHL’s player assistance program in February and a trade to the Carolina Hurricanes in March.

Washington also traded winger Anthony Mantha, who scored 20 goals in 56 games, and defenseman Joel Edmundson ahead of the deadline. It could have been a moment when the Capitals decided to pack it in and focus on next season. Instead, it proved to be a turning point.

“There’s so many different moments where this team has shown its true character throughout this year of finding different ways to win,” Carbery said after Monday’s shutout of the Boston Bruins. “And, as well, when our backs were against the wall and our season was on the brink in multiple situations — post-deadline, we move some guys out. Easy for our group to say: ‘You know what? It’s been a great run. We’re not going for it this year, so we’ll just ride off into the sunset.’

“It wasn’t even close to that. Our guys are like, ‘We’re going to find a way.’ ”

That sentiment became something of a mantra for Washington as the season went along and it became clear that these Capitals were not going to be the run-and-gun, score-at-will version of years past. They had to win games the hard way — grinding out one-goal victories and battling for every inch of ice, on every shift, every night.

That was true of their first victory of the season, a 3-2 shootout win over the Calgary Flames on Oct. 16, and it was true of their last win of the season, which needed an empty-net game-winner from T.J. Oshie to seal the deal, and of so many of the 38 wins in between.

But as the Capitals beat the odds and won three games in four nights to close the regular season and secure a spot in the playoffs, their almost-defiant attitude harked back to Carbery’s first mantra for his group: something to prove.

“This is the first time in a long, long time where the narrative in the hockey world has a lot of doubt in this group,” Carbery said in October. “If you read any article, not one is saying, ‘Watch out for the Washington Capitals — this is a playoff team.’ ”

The Capitals rallied around the idea of proving those doubters wrong, regardless of how long their odds of doing so seemed.

“It’s a situation when nobody thought we were going to be in,” captain Alex Ovechkin, who scored his 31st goal of the season and the 853rd of his career Tuesday, said as he reflected on what his team had accomplished. “But we win. … We battled through lots of difficult moments, injuries, trades, and we still believe. The most important thing is belief. We all believe in each other.”

Just as Carbery believed in his group, all the way back in the beginning.

Game 1 of the Capitals-Rangers series will begin at 3 p.m. Sunday at Madison Square Garden, the NHL announced Wednesday. The game will air locally on Monumental Sports Network and nationally on ESPN. The rest of the series schedule will be announced later.

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