The Capitals are the NHL’s best team. It isn’t close.
That development has prompted a range of emotions from local sports observers, including this one: We’ve seen this before, regular-season dominance doesn’t much matter, please get back to me in June. And by the way, do you like my fashionable new hairshirt, made with only the coarsest of goat hair?
I’d like to congratulate those cynics on their world-weariness and wisdom. You are a stirring example for us all. I’d also like to tell them a secret: You’re missing out.
Fact is, we haven’t seen this before. Virtually no one has. The Caps have more wins through their first 57 games than any team in the history of the league. They have the most points through 57 games of any team in 35 years. Since Jan. 3, they’re 15-3-1; the much-worshiped Golden State Warriors are 18-3 in that same span. To say “we’ve seen this before” is both empirically incorrect and a bit gauche, like scoffing at the arrival of Rose’s Luxury because Washington already had a Morton’s.
It’s also obtuse. If you don’t care about a team winning games at this pace; if you aren’t the slightest bit moved by one of the best stretches of play in the history of the NHL; if you don’t derive any pleasure from a local team with victories spilling out of its pockets and pouring forth from its underpants, perhaps you aren’t actually a fan of watching sports.
Because what is the argument against enjoying unparalleled regular-season success? That the postseason is the only thing that matters? That this will all be for naught if the Caps get upset in the first round of the playoffs?
Maybe for players and coaches and those fans who haven’t been hugged enough, the only thing that matters is championships, and everything else is but grated Parmesan in the wind. But if that’s your argument, you’re also claiming NHL fans who watch any hockey at all from October through March are wasting their time. That a Caps team fighting for its playoff life in February somehow would be more worthy of attention than a team that hasn’t lost consecutive regulation games in more than 11 months.
You’re arguing that the investment of time and emotion into a team can’t be even partially repaid by five months of virtuosity, because of the risk of a two-week letdown. That those regular-season nachos were consumed in vain, that the entirety of every league’s record book is a trivial sham, and that the purpose of professional sports is not actually to provide entertainment and joy on random winter nights, but only to crown one team of winners while identifying a whole bunch of losers.
You’re therefore arguing that what the Caps did in the past week was pointless – just like Evgeny Kuzentsov’s five-point night in October, just like Braden Holtby’s pursuit of the NHL’s season wins record, just like Alex Ovechkin’s quest to become just the third player with seven 50-goal seasons.
Getting dominated by the Pacific Division-leading Kings, only to storm back for a 3-1 win? Meh. Getting two more Ovechkin goals in Brooklyn and erasing a late equalizer with puck-control mastery in overtime? Didn’t even crack a smile!
Trailing New Jersey late, until a game-tying goal from the sprawling T.J. Oshie, stick-handling miracles from Kuznetsov and a rare tally from Brooks Orpik that sent the bench into wind-up spasms of delight? Too busy clipping coupons to notice. And hey, there’s some dust on the bookshelf.
This isn’t to say the Caps will win the Stanley Cup. Fifteen other teams seem likely to qualify for the playoffs, and history cautions against picking hockey’s best regular-season team. And this isn’t to say 2016 won’t be remembered as a crushing, spleen-rending disappointment if the Caps lose in the early rounds of the postseason.
But if you’re so paralyzed by that possibility that you can’t even enjoy a team winning more than 75 percent of its games, then why bother with fandom in the first place? If this month hasn’t given you a thrill and allowed you to deposit some happiness in your emotional bank, why would you ever watch a regular-season game, in any sport? The Caps and the Warriors both offer concentrated brilliance; one of those teams is on Washington televisions three times a week.
There are arguments for why this team could be different: instead of a weakness in net, it has a Vezina candidate; instead of a Generic Hockey Player at second-line center, it has a superstar; instead of unknowns at defense, it has four or more standouts; instead of a coach and captain who have never been past the second round, it has … okay , forget that one.
Those are wonderful arguments for six weeks from now. In the meantime, here is a team winning games at a rate no MLB, NBA or NHL team has ever won in this city, perhaps the most impressive Washington pro team since the 1991 Redskins.
And yet there are local radio hosts who in the last week have said things like “talk to me in April.” Who have said this team’s playoff-readiness is “the only question worth answering.” Who have started their shows by saying “we” had a win and a loss last night — referring to the Wizards and Terps — before acknowledging the Caps. There are fans who tweet me things like “I’m numb to good regular-season news,” and “If they don’t win the Cup, it is kind of like kissing your sister,” and “We don’t care about regular season!”
I can’t tell you what to care about, other than good cheese and the Beethoven piano concertos. And it’s impossible not to sympathize with fans whose broken hearts have been re-broken, then pieced together, then shattered again.
There are other gifts for sports fandom, though, besides parades. This team is flinging them out multiple times a week, letting them rain down from the heavens. You don’t have to wait until June to collect.