By Tim Wharnsby
(Reuters) - 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."
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.
(Reporting by Tim Wharnsby in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue)