The Washington Capitals are not choking dogs. And they haven’t been for 20 years.
Oh, to be sure, they once were. But that was long ago. The Capitals’ first 11 trips to the playoffs were one continuous gag-o-rama, including seven springs when their seasons ended at the hands of a demonstrably weaker opponent. Those disasters cemented a Cap-itulation reputation that’s now a third of a century old and a central part of dismal D.C. lore.
There only one hitch. That team — the choking dog Caps — disappeared more than 20 years ago. None of us noticed it, certainly not me. I’ve bashed the Caps in the spring as terminal underachievers more times than I now care to remember.
Since the spring of 1994, the Caps’ record in 14 trips to the playoffs has been exactly what you’d expect if you used modern methods, such as the Simple Rating System at pro-hockey-reference, to evaluate how good they actually were.
In the past 21 seasons, the Caps have been in 20 playoff series. Three times, they upset stronger teams, based on SRS, which combines goal-differential with strength of schedule. Three times, they did “choke” — in that they lost to foes that were statistically weaker. And 14 times the playoff series went as SRS would have predicted — the better team won. So 3-14-3 vs. SRS chalk.
Perhaps only a franchise as bludgeoned by annual insults and old jokes (I’m raising my hand again) could enjoy being told, “Cheer up, you’re mediocre!”
Why has the perception of the Capitals been so warped for so long? Part of the reason, of course, is the totally deserved stigma of 1985-93, when Washington blew a stunning seven series against weaker teams, upset two stronger teams and had five series go as might have been expected.
But another, subtler reason, almost an insidious one, was in play, too. Especially if you consider the weight of high expectations, plus a nightmare playoff reputation. Year after year, the Caps padded their point totals against weak foes in the Patrick Division and put their banners in the rafters. But any strength-of-schedule analysis would have given a more candid view of the Caps’ real ability.
And what was their “real ability?” How would we measure it?
This is the century when sports analytics have (finally) come of age. Some are complex, some controversial and unrefined, but others are so elementary and hard to ignore that it’s a shock they weren’t used several decades ago.
I asked Neil Greenberg, The Post’s Fancy Stats metrics guru and an NHL addict, what the best (comprehensible) statistic was for measuring the true strength of an NHL team over a full season. We agreed it was probably the SRS. For example, the mighty 2009-10 Caps (groan) had an SRS of 0.90; they started every game with an advantage of almost a full goal (1.00) over the average team.
Is SRS really more predictive of a team’s ability to go deep into the Stanley Cup hunt than just looking at a team’s point totals? Yes. Probably by quite a bit.
Perhaps the period of Caps history that most deserves exoneration is the current Alex Ovechkin era. For seven straight seasons, from the time the Great Eight first had a major impact, the Caps consistently ranked higher, often much higher, in the NHL in points than they did in SRS. In other words, they probably weren’t as good as their reputation (or their team and media hype).
The only truly wonderful Caps team was the 2009-10 Presidents Cup winner with that gorgeous 0.90 SRS as well as 121 points. By any measure, their first-round loss to Montreal truly iced the franchise’s bad rep.
Here are the SRS ranks of Ovechkin’s other teams since 2007 within the Eastern Conference: eighth, fifth, fifth, seventh, fifth and eighth last year. Here is their SRS standing in the NHL: 19th, ninth, 10th, 16th, seventh and 17th. If you look at points, you might see a Rock the Red powerhouse, especially in 2008-09 through 2010-11, when the Caps were second, first and first in their conference in points. With SRS, the “dynasty” disappears.
Now for the (mildly) good news. This season, for once, SRS says the Caps are actually a bit better than most fans or their point totals suggest: fourth in the Eastern Conference and a competitive seventh in the NHL. Don’t hyperventilate.
Why take the trouble to revisit the demonization of the Caps? Who cares if they’ve been a pretty normal NHL team, not Classic Chokers, for two decades? Maybe it’s because I’m annoyed by D.C.’s woe-is-us tone of voice about its local teams. It wasn’t always this way. And the Caps were a key to the shift.
The Caps Curse began 30 years ago with a blown two-game lead to the Islanders and a season-ending loss at home. Back then, D.C. was in the midst of its best sports era ever with four Super Bowl appearances in Joe Gibbs’s time, the Hoyas’ national title with Patrick Ewing, Sugar Ray Leonard’s reign as world’s best-known boxer and the semi-adopted Orioles’ World Series win.
Were the Caps’ repeated face plants in April part of a conversational erosion in local sports? By 1993, when they had their seventh season-ending fold in nine seasons, the franchise had become a punch line.
Since Jan. 26, 1992, with a handful of happy exceptions, what has D.C. won that is of national note or that raises the city’s mood?
Maybe the Caps, and the unfair misperception by some of us, weren’t part of the problem.
But here’s a novel notion: Let’s not assume it’s “in character” for these Caps to fold. Right now, they have the second-best SRS (plus-0.42) of any Caps team since 1992-93. Only 2009-10 was better. Ovechkin, who may win his fourth MVP, leads the NHL in goals and is tied with teammate Nick Backstrom for the league lead in scoring. Goalie Braden Holtby is second in shutouts.
So let’s be sure to mock and trash ’em because, well, they’re the choking Caps.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.