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The playoff contender that keeps getting blown out

Scott Taetsch / Getty Images

While flowers bloom in April, preseason predictions wither. Those who doubted the Washington Capitals expected their year would be completely different.

Rather than snipe at will for a lottery team, Alex Ovechkin drove less offense than usual for a surprising playoff contender. The Capitals rank 28th in the NHL in goals scored (2.69 per game) and are 27th in goal differential (minus-35) entering Wednesday's action. Somehow, they're a point back of third place in the Metropolitan Division.

Six Eastern Conference foes and five Western clubs are on track to miss the playoffs with stronger goal differentials. The improbability of Washington's push is historic.

Contrasts define this former Stanley Cup champion. Only two teams - the lowly Sharks and Blackhawks - get blown out more often by three or more goals, per Stathead.

When a result's undecided, the Capitals salvage points. Their record in one-goal games is 18-2-10. That amounts to a .767 situational points percentage.

Their roster took hits throughout the season. The degeneration of Nicklas Backstrom's hip, combined with trades that shipped out Joel Edmundson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Anthony Mantha, weakened Washington's depth. But Dylan Strome has scored reliably, and in net, the breakout of 30-year-old career backup Charlie Lindgren offset Darcy Kuemper's abrupt decline.

The Flyers, Red Wings, and Islanders stalled in the standings as certain Capitals stepped up. A 13-7-2 run since mid-February helped Washington catch those teams and the sluggish Devils and Penguins. Twelve of Ovechkin's 26 goals, nine of Connor McMichael's 17, nine of Sonny Milano's 13, and six of Hendrix Lapierre's eight were tallied during the hot streak.

The Capitals are tied in points with ninth-place Detroit, but have two more regulation wins and a game in hand. Both teams, or one plus the Islanders, could make the playoffs if Philadelphia slides below the wild-card cutline. The circumstances give Washington a chance to do something rare.

Charlie Lindgren. Julian Avram / Icon Sportswire / Getty Images
Brett Hull (left) and Wayne Gretzky teamed up for the 1995-96 Blues. M. Desjardins / Bruce Bennett Collection / Getty Images

The last statistically bad team to advance in the postseason iced seven future Hall of Famers. Wayne Gretzky's arrival in a February trade helped the aging, underperforming 1995-96 Blues (minus-29 goal differential) belatedly discover their scoring touch. Those Blues dragged the powerhouse Red Wings to Game 7 of the second round. Steve Yzerman's famous slapper finally eliminated them in double overtime.

A recent comparable, the 2011-12 Panthers (minus-24 differential), tied an NHL record with 18 losses after regulation. Key players for the lackluster Southeast Division champ included Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg, and the Jose Theodore-Scott Clemmensen goalie tandem. Florida scared the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Devils in the opening round but fittingly gave up OT winners in Games 6 and 7.

Revitalized after a creaky start, Ovechkin's trying to complete a record 18th 30-goal season. He needs 46 more goals to equal Gretzky's career benchmark of 894. Give the Capitals credit: Without winning a series since their Cup breakthrough, they've found new and unique ways to stay relevant.

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

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