Online sportsbooks list Washington at 7-2 or 4-1 odds. It looks swell. But if those numbers are accurate, that means there’s about an 80 percent chance that the Caps will lose their final game of the season. Your chances are still better to pull a diamond at random out of a deck of playing cards; you’ll be disappointed far more often than not.
Now think about the potential reactions to that season-ending loss. If the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Caps again bow out in the first round, the national mockery will be vicious. If they lose yet another second-round series — to either the Rangers or the Penguins, at that — this historic season will be remembered as just another in a series of painful failures. Losing in the Eastern Conference or Stanley Cup finals would stave off most of the jokes, but to get so close to that title after 42 years of waiting would be agony, a toe chewed off by a rabid weasel during the final mile of a marathon.
Which is why the safest move is to take these Caps off the hook right now. Assume the worst: a four-game, first-round sweep. Assume this season ends worse than “The Walking Dead.” Forget modest expectations; embrace no expectations. And then treat each playoff win like a little bundle of joy, a tiny miracle to be savored and celebrated.
“I mean, some people live their life like that,” former Caps forward Mike Knuble said this week, when I laid out my recommendation. “They prepare for a worst-case scenario, and then whatever happens is a bonus.”
Bingo. What was it Oblomov said in Goncharov’s classic? (That’s an author, not a defenseman.) “The blossom of life has fallen; only the thorns are left.” Sounds like a playoff slogan to me.
I also mentioned this theory to my pal Eric Bickel from the Junkies the other day, and he immediately started nodding his head, as I knew he would. He has lived through “Where’s my ring?” and “World Series or Bust,” Jaroslav Halak (the Canadien) and Jaroslav Halak (the Capital). These Caps may be blissfully free of history, but Washingtonians wear it like a lead vest.
“I think it’s just being realistic,” Bickel said. “The last time I assumed a local team would win a championship was the 1983 Redskins, and they crushed my soul. Ever since then, I’ve never had any expectations.”
People like us look at a sunny-side up egg and see only storm clouds, which has made the past few days particularly confounding. Because normally rational folks can’t stop predicting that the Caps will pull that diamond out of that deck of cards. Alex Trebek and Larry King both picked the Caps to win it all. So did Hall of Famer Scott Stevens. So did NHL Network analysts Mike Rupp and Dave Reid. So did Sportsnet analysts Elliotte Friedman, Nick Kypreos and Doug MacLean. One online book listed Braden Holtby as the favorite to win the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP, and an EA Sports simulation wound up crowning Washington. The Caps even started wearing “XVI” hats around their dressing room, signaling the maximum number of wins ahead of them. What happened to one game at a time?
ESPN’s experts went 10-for-10 predicting the Caps to win in the first round, and CSN’s Craig Laughlin pronounced himself “100-percent confident” that the Caps would beat the Flyers. This is madness, like expressing 100-percent confidence that Chris Christie is in New Jersey at any given moment. This franchise has lost six of its past 10 first-round series! I’m not 100-percent confident the team bus won’t turn into a cheesesteak on the way to the Wells Fargo Center!
And that’s all without mentioning the last two months of the season. Over their final 30 games, the Caps had 17 wins. The Flyers had 18. The Penguins, who likely await in the second round, had 21. Sure, Washington was playing for nothing. Napoleon also took just a quick breather in Elba. Turns out he could have used a bit of momentum entering Waterloo.
I know, this is the strongest Caps team you’ve ever seen. It’s probably the strongest Capitals team that has ever existed. There are no major injuries, no obvious flaws, and no reason to expect that the past six months were a fluke.
“This team compared to that one we had in ’09-’10, any category you want to use to label a team, they’re better,” Knuble said. “Way more mature, way more experienced, way more depth, way more grit — everything you need to win.”
“I’m very optimistic, more than I’ve ever been covering this team for 25 years,” Laughlin said on ESPN 980. “They are so much better than everybody else in the league, bar maybe one team out West.”
“I think this, overall, is the best team the Capitals franchise has ever iced,” longtime radio play-by-play voice Ron Weber told me. “I’ve seen them all.”
Which would make another postseason failure all the more painful. Coach Barry Trotz is tired of talking about history’s burden, which is fair enough, so I brought the question instead to GM Brian MacLellan.
“We need to focus on how we’re playing game-to-game, shift-to-shift, and not let whatever’s gone on the last 20 years come into play here,” he said. “Not get too concerned about how far we have to get, [that] we have to get to this round or this round. We need to win a game. That’s where we start.”
Perfectly put. And if they win a game Thursday night, hug that bundle of joy close to your chest. Treat it not as episode one of a 16-part series, but as its own glorious feature film. Heck, throw a Game 1 victory parade. I’ll bring the confetti.