Tell me if you heard this one before: The Washington Capitals choke in the playoffs. It’s a familiar refrain, considering the team has never advanced past the second round since Alex Ovechkin was drafted as the No. 1 overall pick in 2004.
The tendency is to set postseason expectations based on regular season performance, but history shows this to be a bit unfair. For example, only eight of the last 31 Presidents’ Trophy winners — awarded to the team with the best overall record during the regular season — have won the Stanley Cup. Just three others made the Stanley Cup finals. In the NBA, by comparison, the team with the most wins has gone on to win a title 14 times in that same span, with two others making the NBA Finals.
Expectations are high again this season as Washington won its second straight Presidents’ Trophy and is the favorite to win the Cup, according to the betting markets (16 percent, per Predictwise) and the oddsmakers (3-to-1 odds, per the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook). Yet, even as the favorite, there is a high probability the Capitals don’t win, somewhere in the neighborhood of a 70 to 80 percent fail rate, which is significantly higher than the chances of any of their previous playoff exits.
In fact, if we took the team’s chances of winning a championship since 2007-08, based on historical odds immediately before the first round of the playoffs began, the franchise would be expected to exit this nine-year window without winning a Cup nearly two-thirds of the time (62.7 percent).
Here’s a series-by-series look at each time the Capitals were eliminated in the playoffs during the Ovechkin era, with context to show how not all of them are the result of choking away a golden opportunity.
2007-08 No. 3 Washington Capitals lost in the first round to the No. 6 Philadelphia Flyers, 3-4
Losing a seven-game series is never easy, but Washington barely made it into the playoffs that year, nor were they even expected to — bookmakers gave Washington the fourth-worst odds to win the Stanley Cup that season.
And it was miraculous the team overcame its slow start. Coach Glen Hanlon oversaw just six wins in the first 21 games of the season before he was replaced by a little-known AHL coach and hockey lifer named Bruce Boudreau.
Boudreau would lead the team to a Southeast Division win, giving the Capitals a No. 3 seed in the conference, but after adjusting their margin of victory for strength of schedule, Washington was the eighth-best team in the East.
2008-09: No. 2 Washington Capitals lost in the second round to the No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins, 3-4
The Capitals would beat the New York Rangers in seven games before facing Sidney Crosby and the Penguins in the second round.
Ovechkin would have the best postseason of his career — 11 goals and 10 assists in 14 games — including dueling hat tricks with Crosby in Game 2 of the series.
It was ultimately Washington’s netminder, Semyon Varlamov, who would be the team’s Achilles’ heel. After stopping 343 of the 371 shots he faced — including 81 of 94 high-danger chances, those originating in the slot or crease — with two shutouts in the playoffs leading up to a pivotal Game 7, Varlamov was pulled from the game in the second period after allowing four goals on 18 shots.
2009-10: No. 1 Washington Capitals lost in the first round to the No. 8 Montreal Canadiens, 3-4
Washington entered the playoffs as the Presidents’ Trophy winner (121 points), matching them up against Montreal, a No. 8 seed. The Capitals led the league in goals scored (318) with seven players scoring 20 or more goals during the regular season, with Ovechkin potting 50 goals that year.
The only thing that could stop Washington’s offensive onslaught was near-perfect goaltending. And that’s exactly what Canadiens netminder Jaroslav Halak provided.
Halak posted a save percentage of .924 during the regular season for Montreal, and then become the very definition of a “hot goalie” in the playoffs, stopping 131 of 134 shots in a three-game stretch that sealed the series — and the upset — for the Canadiens.
This is perhaps one of two playoff losses in the Ovechkin era that can be classified as a choke, as it was the first time an eighth-seeded team won a series against a No. 1 seed after being down 3-1 in the series.
2010-11: No. 1 Washington Capitals lost in the second round to the No. 5 Tampa Bay Lightning, 0-4
Washington had gone five games against the New York Rangers before facing off against the Lightning in the second round. Getting swept as a top seed is never easy to explain, but Washington outshot Tampa Bay at evens (198 attempts to 153) and kept pace with them on scoring chances (31 for each team) but couldn’t get enough bounces to move on to the conference finals.
2011-12: No. 7 Washington Capitals lost in the second round to the No. 1 New York Rangers, 3-4
The Capitals squeaked into the playoffs as a No. 7 seed, and, if not for Joel Ward’s heroics in Game 7 — an overtime goal against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins — might have gone home even sooner.
But once Washington got their chance against the East’s top seed, the New York Rangers, they made the most of it, with Game 3 needing triple overtime to decide who would take the series lead.
Ward would commit an ill-advised high-sticking penalty in Game 5, earning him a double-minor, which the Rangers capitalized on with two power-play goals, one with 6.6 seconds in regulation and the game-winning tally in overtime.
Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist started all seven games of the series, never allowing more than three goals to be scored on him in any given game and stopping 43 of 48 high-danger chances against.
2012-13: No. 3 Washington Capitals lost in the first round to the No. 6 New York Rangers, 3-4
After adjusting scoring margin for strength of schedule these were two evenly-matched teams, with Washington acting as a slight underdog on neutral ice. But Lundqvist was again the difference, stopping 214 of 226 shots against (. 947 save percentage) with two shutouts, including blanking the Caps in Game 7 while five different players scored for New York.
However, based on shot locations and scoring averages, the final score of the deciding game in the series should have been a lot closer, with New York edging out Washington by a goal (3.6 to 2.5). That’s no solace to fans of a losing team, but it does show that the puck just didn’t bounce the Caps way despite all their best efforts.
2014-15: No. 2 Washington Capitals lost in the second round to the No. 1 New York Rangers, 3-4
Hello, friend. We meet again.
This was Washington’s fifth playoff series against New York in seven years, with the Rangers overcoming a 3-1 series deficit to force, and win, a deciding Game 7.
Maybe you chalk this one up to Washington choking — it was the fifth time the franchise blew a 3-1 series lead, most among NHL teams — but if this series was played 1,000 times, the Capitals would be expected to outscore the Rangers 24 to 21 rather than get outscored 12 to 13. That’s a big difference for both teams, but a monumental one for Washington if they somehow moved on to the Eastern Conference finals.
2015-16: No. 1 Washington Capitals lost in the second round to the No. 2 Pittsburgh Penguins, 2-4
Once the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs started, almost everyone circled this potential matchup between Washington and Pittsburgh on the bracket and declared the eventual winner would go on to be the league’s champion. After all, these teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in goal differential during the regular season.
Pittsburgh started a rookie goaltender, Matthew Murray, despite him having just 13 games at the NHL level, but the move paid off. The 21-year-old from Ontario stopped 187 of the 202 shots he faced against Washington. His 47-save performance for the Penguins in Game 3 was just the third time since 1988, the earliest data is available, a rookie that young or younger made at least 40 saves in the playoffs in a winning effort. So instead of Washington scoring four goals in that game, which is what we would expect given its volume and location, and taking a 2-1 series lead, the Capitals scored just two goals and were in the hole.
According to whowins, home teams such as Washington that take a 2-1 series lead go on to win a second-round series 71 percent of the time. That drops to 40.7 percent when they fall to a 2-1 series deficit. Washington’s two-goal disparity in Game 3 made all the difference.
Correction: A prior version had the first-round playoff series against the New York Rangers in 2010-11 going seven games. It was five. This has been corrected.