The Carolina Panthers became only the seventh team in NFL history to win at least 15 games during the regular season, boasted the league’s best offense and steamrolled through the playoffs en route to the Super Bowl. They looked unstoppable…until the Denver Broncos stopped them.
To this point, the Washington Capitals are the NHL’s closest equivalent of the Carolina Panthers (and that’s not even counting Evgeny Kuznetsov’s dab-like celebration after a gorgeous assist last month). Washington is leading the league in goals and just became the first team in NHL history to win 39 of its first 52 games. Don’t be surprised if a Tennessee mom writes a letter to The Post in the wake of Tuesday’s 5-3 win in Nashville chiding the Capitals, who are 12 points clear of the second-place team in the Eastern Conference despite playing two fewer games, for making a mockery of the rest of the league.
Come the playoffs, the Capitals will have the opportunity to write a better ending to a thus far brilliant season than Cam Newton and the Panthers. Doing so will require a franchise that has enjoyed no shortage of regular season success advancing past the second round for the first time since 1998.
It would be easier to appreciate the Capitals’ dominance this season and to encourage friends and casual fans to jump on the Alex Ovechkin-driven bandwagon — the more, the merrier! — if so many previous models hadn’t been run off the road by semi-trucks named LaFontaine and Halak. It’s hard to fault fellow Capitals supporters who are hesitant to buy into this year’s success, who view every positive thing written and said about the team as meaningless praise or, worse, as part of a growing jinx that will only increase the magnitude of the seemingly inevitable heartbreak come spring.
Ignoring regular season power rankings and Stanley Cup predictions and tuning out the Capitals until the playoffs begin is one option for fans looking to minimize their investment in the team before yet another potential letdown. But Comcast SportsNet play-by-play man Joe Beninati, who has been calling Capitals games since 1994 and whose job requires that he pay attention to Washington’s final 30 games of the regular season, says those fans could miss quite the show.
“This team is the best team that the Caps have put on the ice and it’s not close,” Beninati said at the all-star break. “It’s better than the [2009-10] team.”
Beninati described the 2009-10 Capitals, who led the league in goals en route to winning the Presidents’ Trophy before losing to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round, as a high-wire act that was entertaining to watch, but not built to win in April, May and June. He says this year’s team is playing “the right way” and is motivated by last year’s second-round playoff loss to the New York Rangers, a series the Capitals led 3-1 at one point.
“I know that Caps fans have had their hearts broken and players are aware of the history, but I think this team is really feeding off of last year’s disappointment,” Beninati said. “They felt like they had the Rangers [on the ropes] and they didn’t finish them. They played incredibly well in Game 7 and they were so close in Game 5. They hate the fact that they lost. This year, they lose one and they make sure they don’t lose the next one.”
These Capitals haven’t lost back-to-back games in regulation this season, and they’re not only the best team in franchise history, they’re D.C.’s best team among the four major pro sports since the 1991 Redskins. As anyone who follows my friend and colleague Dan Steinberg on Twitter knows, a Q&A with Jeff Rutledge, Washington’s backup QB and holder on that Super Bowl-winning squad, still might generate more web traffic than Barry Trotz’s red-hot hockey team, but there are signs that excitement about the Capitals is growing.
For instance, the average resale price for Capitals home games on the mobile-focused ticket marketplace SeatGeek this season is $88, the highest since the 2011-12 season, and almost $20 more than last season ($67). SeatGeek reports that the average resale price of Capitals home games since December is $99.
“Obviously, the fans are into it,” goaltender Braden Holtby told NBC’s Pierre McGuire after Washington improved to 20-4-2 at home with a win over Philadelphia on Sunday, in front of the Capitals’ 296th consecutive sellout crowd at Verizon Center. “When you win, the fans, they get better, and that’s a good thing. But we’re confident in all areas — home, away, trailing, leading, anything like that. We’re just confident, we’re having fun here, we’re playing our hockey and it’s a good thing.”
A Comcast SportsNet spokesman said that while TV ratings for Capitals games haven’t returned to the peak levels achieved during 2010-11 season, average viewership at the all-star break had increased 23 percent compared to the same point last season and viewership has increased by nearly 30 percent since the beginning of December.
“I hope more people read about and watch and see this team. This team deserves that,” Beninati said. “In the last few weeks, it’s not just friends of mine who are commenting on how great the Caps are playing, it’s people I might bump into in the airport or a restaurant, who recognize my face and what I do and are yelling, ‘Go Caps!’ Ultimately, they’re going to be judged on what they do in the spring, but just the feel that I get from the community is that more people are understanding how good this team is.”
Capitals radio voice John Walton hasn’t been a part of nearly as much Capitals playoff disappointment as Beninati or the average Capitals fan. When the Capitals lost to Halak and the Canadiens in the first round of the 2010 playoffs, Walton was still announcing games for the Hershey Bears, who were on their way to winning their third Calder Cup in five years. Still, he understands the wait-and-see approach of some fans.
“Each season is a different animal for the player, but for the fan, it’s part of 40 years of history,” Walton said. “What’s felt inside the locker room is this season — this season is a living, breathing thing for people who live it and work it every day. They can’t disregard what has happened in the past, but it doesn’t have any impact on what goes on here. What happened before Barry Trotz got here, what happened in 2009-10, they don’t have that reference. But it does matter to the fan. They want to believe, but they know what happened in past.”
Like Beninati, Walton says the Capitals’ regular season success this year feels different than previous years. Nothing is guaranteed in the playoffs, except that to get to where they want to go, the Capitals must exorcise the franchise’s postseason demons of the past.
“I think from a town standpoint, there is no doubt that until you win a Stanley Cup, there is going to be that, ‘Well, you have to do it in the playoffs’ mentality,” Walton said. “I think if you get through two rounds and you’re playing for a conference final, I think that’s where the tipping point might be. That’s when the town starts going crazy.”
It’s only February, but the Capitals look unstoppable. They will be a popular pick to win the Stanley Cup. We get it, you’re scared to get hurt again. But take it from those close to the squad: this year’s group might be different.