Michael Del Zotto of the New York Rangers hits Eric Fehr of the Washington Capitals into the boards at Madison Square Garden Feb. 17 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
One of the everlasting clichés in sports is the idea of "peaking at the right time," an expression used to describe an undefined period of time when a team plays at its maximum potential.
By that definition, the Capitals and Rangers both enter their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series playing in such a way, both instances born out of desperation and required out of necessity. Washington won 15 of its last 19 games to salvage what looked like a lost season and claim the Southeast Division title. Meanwhile, after losing eight of its final 12 games in March, New York, a preseason Stanley Cup favorite to many, won 10 of 14 to clinch the sixth seed.
"It feels like you're not trying, to be honest with you," forward Troy Brouwer said Wednesday as the Capitals practiced ahead of Thursday's Game 1. "It feels like everything is going your way. You're not thinking the game, you know where you are on the ice and you're having fun."
"It just clicks," defenseman Karl Alzner added. "You just feel good when you handle the puck, feel good making plays. It's like when all the little chips that we do, the no-look passes that we do are working. You just know that if I throw this puck across the ice, it's probably going to make it there. If you can get in that state of mind all the time, you'd be the best player ever. It's just so hard to get there."
As Alzner alluded to, "peaking at the right time" is not something that can be prepared for. It happens by chance, not by choice.
According to Brouwer, the Capitals reached their peak performance over the last 10 games of the regular season, but he also admitted Wednesday that there is such thing as peaking at the wrong time. There is also the inherent risk of the inevitable downslide, since there is nowhere else to go but down upon reaching the apex.
And during the postseason, there is little to no time to stem the tide.
During the 1992-93 season, Coach Adam Oates's top-seeded and heavily-favored Bruins team reeled off 16 of 18 entering the postseason only to be swept in the first round by the Sabres.
Washington has had similar experiences in recent seasons, peaking at the end of the season only to falter in the playoffs. The Capitals won 54 games during what seemed like a season-long wave of momentum during the Presidents' Trophy-winning 2009-10 season but fell to the eighth-seeded Canadiens in the first round. The 2010-11 Capitals won 21 of 27 between Feb. 21 and the end of their five-game series victory over the Rangers before being swept by the Lightning.
Of course, as Oates pointed out, "the game has been around long enough that you can find a stat for anything," and either way, he subscribes to a certain ideology.
"I would think that you want your guys playing good on the way [into the playoffs]," he said. "That would make sense, because guys would feel good about themselves.”
Both teams' current trajectories add another wrinkle to what is already slated to be a hotly contested series, which is apropos considering the Capitals' and Rangers' recent play.
"It's two good hockey teams playing against each other," Brouwer said. "They've been playing really well, they got some good acquisitions at the deadline, a lot of guys that are really contributing for them right away, and that attributed to a lot of their peaking right now. Both teams are riding confidence and riding good waves going into the playoffs.
"It's going to make for a good series."
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