The Washington Capitals are there again. Since the New Year, they’ve gone 14-3, moved to the top of the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division and are sitting with the best record in the NHL at 34-11-6. Given the Capitals’ history, should the fan base be excited or filled with dread? Washington has been the case study of a great regular season team since 2009, with all the compliments and digs that the phrase entails.
They’ve cleared the 100-point barrier in the regular season five times and are poised to make it six this year. They’ve won the President’s Trophy, given to the top regular season team, twice. This is after a franchise history where, from their founding in 1975 up through 2008, the Caps only accrued 100 points in a regular season four times.
But that has not translated into playoff success—or even playoff mediocrity. The postseason has been an absolute disaster. It’s not enough to say Washington hasn’t won the Stanley Cup—they haven’t made the Finals in this 2009-17 period, nor have they even gotten past the second round. This is mostly in line with franchise history, though even the pre-2009 Capitals found their way to the Finals in 1998 and a conference final in 1990.
Last year might have been the cruelest cut. Washington was easily the best team in hockey. But with the postseason having been shifted back to a divisional-based format in 2014, the Capitals were forced to deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round and dropped the series in six games.
To add insult to injury…well, it was the Penguins. It marked the eighth time in nine tries that Pittsburgh has ousted Washington from the playoffs and the second in this recent run of good Capitals’ teams. What’s more, the Penguins lucked into it. The difference in that series was the emergence of goaltender Matt Murray as a bona fide star. He saved the Pens from the mediocrity that was Marc-Andre Fleury. And Murray only got the chance, because Fleury was injured. Without that injury, I believe the Capitals beat the Penguins and I further believe that was the series that decided the 2016 Stanley Cup.
There are some sports where having the dominant regular season just isn’t helpful. This isn’t the NBA, where the best team usually wins, or at least makes the Finals. The NHL is “Spring Madness”, a two-month long version of the chaos that the NCAA’s March Madness packs into three weeks. Being the top dog is a dangerous place.
That’s why, when the Capitals got off to a somewhat middling start this season, I saw them as being right where they needed to be. Braden Holtby, their outstanding goaltender, was still playing well, but the media attention was focused on Columbus and Pittsburgh in the divisional race. That’s why, if Washington fans feel a little leery of this current winning stretch, I don’t blame them.
I’m not a Capitals fan—my loyalties lie with the Boston Bruins. But I am strongly sympathetic to the plight of the Washington faithful. I lived in that area for four years and believe the Caps fan base is one of the more underrated in all of sports. As a Redskins fan, I share NFL territory with them and hope they can experience the fun of hoisting the Cup.
There’s a lot of precedent for a team with a long history of playoff frustration winning it when it’s something less than their best year. The Penguins of last year are a perfect example. Another one is the Detroit Red Wings of 1997-98, who won it out of the 3-seed after being eliminated as the league’s best from 1994-96.
Washington can comfortably slide back into third place and fit that criteria perfectly. And in an age where the city of Cleveland has won a championship and the Chicago Cubs have won a World Series, can the Capitals make it three? I’m not ready to bet against them.