Washington Capitals open playoffs as favorites, but it doesn't mean much

With the 2010 NHL postseason set to begin, Washington Capitals players talk about their favorite playoff moments.
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010

When the National Hockey League's playoffs come to Washington on Thursday night, the Capitals will be in a position in which they have never been. After posting the best regular season record in the league, the Capitals are, to many, the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

"If they're not the best team in the National Hockey League, then I don't know who is at the present time," said Lou Lamoriello, the general manager of the New Jersey Devils, one of the Capitals' rivals.

But if they are to win the first championship in the franchise's 35-year history, Thursday night's matchup at Verizon Center -- where the Montreal Canadiens will visit for the first game of their opening-round, best-of-seven playoff series -- is only the first step in what would be a grinding two-month journey. It is also a journey in which regular season success traditionally has meant little. Hockey, more than most professional sports, has a tendency to deliver upsets -- even of the teams that have recorded the best record over an 82-game regular season, even in the very first round.

"Being a number one seed puts a big target on your back, just like in March Madness," Capitals forward Brooks Laich said, referring to the NCAA men's basketball tournament, which is often defined by upsets. "Everyone wants to knock off the number one teams, and see those guys fall."

Since 1994, the 16 teams that annually have qualified for hockey's playoffs -- eight from both the Western and Eastern conferences have been seeded based on their performance in the regular season. Thus, the Capitals will face Montreal, the team with the worst record of any in the playoffs.

In other sports, this is comforting for the favorites. Since hockey came up with its current postseason format, the National Football League has staged 16 Super Bowls, and 14 times at least one top seed has played for the championship. But over the same time period, hockey's Stanley Cup finals have been without a top seed eight times. The National Basketball Association has arranged its playoffs like hockey does since 1984, and a top seed has lost to the eighth seed just three times in 52 tries, each a monumental surprise. In hockey? "It seems like it happens every year," Capitals forward Eric Fehr said.

Try every other year. In 30 top seed-vs.-eight seed series (one in each conference every year), the eighth seed has won better than once every four tries.

"We've seen teams get in the back door, and then end up winning the whole thing," Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said.

In fact, in hockey, more top seeds have lost in the first round (eight) than have won the Stanley Cup (five). Just last season, for instance, the San Jose Sharks finished with the best record in the league -- and promptly lost their first-round series to the Anaheim Ducks, who had the worst record of any team in the playoffs.

"It's a dangerous position to be in; it really is," said Pittsburgh veteran Bill Guerin, who was a member of the top-seeded Boston Bruins in 2002 -- and was beaten by eighth-seeded Montreal. "Once teams get in, they feel good about themselves no matter what, and they're ready to take on whoever. It doesn't matter. They're playing with nothing to lose."

Which, as a best-of-seven series wears on, can be completely different than what the favorite is feeling. For a team like the Capitals, there is so much to lose.

"The favorite starts thinking, 'Man, we're supposed to win this. Everyone says we're supposed to win this,' " said Capitals center Brendan Morrison, a member of the powerful 1998 New Jersey Devils, who were bounced by the eighth-seeded Ottawa Senators. "And if you get off to a bad start, then you start thinking, 'Jeez, maybe this team has a chance.' Momentum changes, and all of a sudden -- boom -- you're out of the series."

There are several reasons for such possibilities in hockey, players and coaches said. First, goaltenders can have a disproportionate impact on a series, in some cases taking them over. In last year's surprising win over San Jose, Anaheim goalie Jonas Hiller allowed just 10 goals in six games -- about half what the Sharks averaged during the regular season -- and became the single most important factor in the series.

"Plus, the eighth-place team is scratching and clawing the last three, four weeks of the season to get in," Capitals defenseman Tom Poti said. "If the top seed is coasting, they could be in trouble."

The Capitals are not planning on coasting. The three playoff series they have played over the past two years -- a loss to Philadelphia in 2008, a win over the New York Rangers and then a loss to Pittsburgh a year ago -- have each lasted seven tense games. They would very much like to dispose of Montreal, which played the Capitals almost evenly during the regular season, quickly in order to save themselves for later rounds.

"If you play long series," Laich said, "mentally and physically, you don't get a break."

On the night before training camp opened last September, Boudreau outlined his goals for the team: Win the Southeast Division, post the best record in the Eastern Conference, win the Presidents' Trophy for the best record in the league -- and win the Cup. The first three are done. One remains. Can the Capitals turn regular season success into a championship?

"You go from hoping to make the playoffs to expecting to make the playoffs to, I think, expecting to make a very long run and challenge for a championship," Laich said. "It means our organization's moving in a positive direction. It means our players are getting better. Everyone has a real solid belief in our guys. I think we've proved it through the regular season that we're a very good hockey team. Now we have to prove it in the postseason."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company