1995 season represents hope for Capitals

February 8, 2013

With the season almost at the quarter-pole, the Capitals are in somewhat dire straits , holding a 2-8-1 record with only 37 games left in the regular season. But Washington fans may find some cause for optimism by recalling the team’s 1995 season. Just as with this year, an NHL lockout led to a 48-game season, and those Caps also got off to an awful start. Here is a comparison between the two squads, through 11 games:

1995 2013
2-7-2* Record 2-8-1
6 Points in standings 5
20 Goals for 25
30 Goals against 41
13
out of 14
Rank in conference 15
out of 15

* — The last number indicates ties; in 2013 it indicates overtime losses. But they both give a team one point in the standings, with wins counting for two.

In fact, it didn’t get any better for the 1995 Capitals over their next seven contests, at which point they had the second-worst record in the entire league and were third-worst in scoring. But — and here is where fans should hope history continues to repeat itself — the ’95 Caps then went on a major tear. Not surprisingly, the dramatic turnaround involved better play on both the offensive and defensive ends:

First 18 games Next 17 games
3-10-5 Record 13-2-2
2.06 Goals scored per game 3.35
5.3 Goals allowed per game 1.94

From there, the team went 6-6-1 and finished the season 22-18-8, good for the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. (And a typically gut-wrenching seven-game loss to the hated Penguins in the first round, but the less said about that, the better, right?)

So how were the ’95 Caps able to get so hot? Of course, it took a team effort, but it also took major improvement in two specific areas that have echoes in 2013: the star offensive player and the goaltending. Much like Alex Ovechkin nowadays (3 goals, 4 assists), Peter Bondra was an Eastern European sniper who was having trouble shaking off a scoring slump from the previous season:

G A
Bondra, first 18 games of 1995 7 2

But Bondra was able to rediscover his scoring touch:

G A
Bondra, final 30 games of 1995 27 7

In fact, Bondra’s 34 total goals wound up leading the NHL. It may be asking too much for Ovechkin to scale similar heights this season, but there is little doubt that he needs to start looking more like his old self for the 2012 Caps to enjoy sustained success.

One of the weakest facets of this season’s Capitals has been the goaltending. As in 1995, the team has started the season relying on a pair of young goaltenders, who have struggled:

Goalies, thru 11 games Age Save pct.*
1995
Olaf Kolzig 24 .878
Rick Tabaracci 26 .893
2012
Michal Neuvirth 24 .889
Braden Holtby 23 .857

* — Note that a save percentage below .900 is considered poor.

In 1995, the goaltending fix was born of what then-Coach Jim Schoenfeld called the “desperate situation” of that 18-game start. The Capitals decided to promote 20-year-old Jim Carey from the minor leagues, and he went on to have a sensational debut, finishing second in the NHL in goals against average:

1995 GP W L SV% GAA SO
Jim Carey 28 18 6 .913 2.13 4

This year’s Capitals are unlikely to pull a net-minding savior from their top minor league team, which currently employs 32-year-old journeyman Dany Sabourin and 21-year-old Philipp Grubauer, who is inexperienced even at the AHL level. Besides, the Caps are presumably still confident that either Neuvirth or Holtby, both of whom have had effective stretches in the NHL, can improve their play and take over the job. But if the duo continues to struggle, the team will eventually have to investigate alternate options, such as the trade market.

The good news is that the Capitals have been in a predicament uncannily similar to the one they are in now, and in that previous instance, they proved that a bad start in a shortened season does not mean that the postseason is out of the question. Of course, avoiding another gut-wrenching playoff loss . . . well, the Caps just need to worry about getting to that bridge, never mind crossing it.

— Desmond Bieler

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