In their past two games, the Washington Capitals have glanced into what may be their future if they reach the Stanley Cup finals. This ain’t gonna be easy.
Evaluation of those games — a 4-3 loss to Western Conference-leading Dallas on the road and a 3-1 win at home over the Los Angeles Kings, who have won two of the past four Stanley Cups — is ambiguous. If periods were scored like rounds in a fight, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz’s card would have rated those two games at 2-3-1.
The big and fast Stars and the big and structured Kings are tough customers. When the Caps play either of them and get too cute — “East-West” in Trotzese — they get punished with turnovers and even shorthanded goals. When they “Go North” — a Barry euphemism for dump-and-chase then beat ’em up on the forecheck — the Caps do better.
The Capitals faced the same identity check last spring: Play through ’em or play around ’em. They went through the Islanders, but it took seven games.
Of course, the Capitals will have to get out of the Eastern Conference before playing the Kings, Stars, Blackhawks or anyone else. A team that hardly needs extra hexes, Washington has been star-crossed against Dallas even in years when the Stars were bad. The Caps have led the Stars for just four of their past 480 minutes.
No matter how good the Caps are — and at 41-10-4 with a half-goal-a-game superiority over any other NHL team, they’ve been one of the three most dominant teams in the last 40 seasons — this Cup project is going to be tough.
What does that mean if you’re a D.C. fan? PANIC!
Please, everybody start whining about the choking Capitals. Gripe, nitpick, find flaws and predict doom. For 33 years, that’s been the safest (laziest) way in sports to look smart. (I’ve done it.)
The playoffs start in about eight weeks. That should be just enough time to work up a full-scale wail — in the nation’s capital and coast-to-coast — about how no sane person would invest emotion in this bunch that has blown a two-game playoff lead 10 times, including last year.
The Presidents’ Trophy for best regular season record, which the Caps will presumably win in a romp, has gone to the eventual Cup champ in only eight of the past 28 seasons. The Caps won that trophy in 2009-10 and lost in the first round. The most recent two Cups went to teams that were seventh and tied for ninth in regular season points.
Alex Ovechkin? Can’t get it done when it matters. Barry Trotz? He’s the most respected coach in the NHL — who has never made it past the second round.
For decades I’ve believed that the constant nagging of the Capitals, by everybody from haughty Canadian commentators to local media (me, too) and their own fans, has undermined the team in much the same way that “curses” have been an extra weight to the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs. You can’t prove it. But the Caps have more catastrophic postseason endings since 1984 than the Cubs and Red Sox in their combined histories of more than 200 years.
“It” is there. In the past, I’ve never felt the Caps were great enough, coached so wonderfully or psychologically tough enough to overcome “it” and go all the way. Only a truly remarkable team flips the script on all that doubt and uses it as fuel.
Are these Caps such a team?
I went back to the first years of the Capitals’ existence, 1974-75, to see which teams beat up the NHL by the biggest goal-differential margins and (factoring in strength of schedule) by Hockey-Reference’s basic Simple Rating System. How often is a team so amazing in the regular season, and what happens to them in the playoffs?
It’s a mighty short list, folks. By SRS, the top three teams in margin of superiority over the next-best team since 1974 have been the 1995-96 Red Wings (plus-0.71 of a goal better than anyone), the 1977-78 Canadiens (plus-0.59) and the current Caps (plus-0.48). Next: the 1988-89 Flames, the 1983-84 Oilers and 2007-08 Red Wings.
Four of the previous five won the Cup. The most recent, the Red Wings, blew through the 2008 playoffs with a 16-6 record. My conclusion: There is a Presidents’ Trophy winner every year. But there’s a team like the Caps, with no other amazing team on the scene in the same season, about once a decade.
There are a hundred ways for the Caps not to win the Cup, including injuries and running into the mythological “hot goalie.” But pay attention. They’re special. And they are very different than in the past.
Braden Holtby has become an MVP-candidate goalie and grew up in a seven-game battle with the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist last spring. Winger T.J. Oshie has added scoring, muscle in the crease and relentless puck pursuit. Justin Williams, Mr. Game 7 from his days winning two Cups with the Kings and one with the Hurricanes, is practically Trotz’s assistant coach on skates. “He finds a way to pull people into the fight,” Trotz said after Williams’s assist set up the winning goal against his old Kings team Tuesday night. “I listen to him. You can’t put analytics on what he says and his timing in when to say it.”
With Brooks Orpik finally healthy, the Caps are finally six deep on the back line. Even Jay Beagle’s long injury absence has been a blessing in disguise as Marcus Johansson has become a stellar third-line center. The hottest Cap? Andre Burakovsky: 17 points in 14 games. He’s 21. Is it even fair for this team to find another star?
But the biggest difference-maker may be the team’s leading scorer. It’s not Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom. It’s 23-year-old all-star Evgeny Kuznetsov. His goal with 2 minutes 2 seconds left in the third period broke a 1-1 tie to beat the Kings.
“I like to play home games when game is tied. It’s a little risky. Never risky, you never drink champagne,” said Kuznetsov, who twirled his index finger after he banked his door-step winner off the far post. “Emotions happen. You can’t control it.”
Kuznetsov “gets overlooked [because of] Ovi and Backy because they have been top guys in the league for years. But he’s not underappreciated in here,” said Orpik, who may be the young Russian’s best friend on the team, as well as his occasional instructor in English as they watch “Family Feud” together.
Kuznetsov may be the only person who has seen his three-year career, until now, as disappointing. “Big paychecks . . . not play well,” he says, shaking his head. What helped him most? Trotz’s confidence in him, he says, and his teammates’ support.
“Orpik, he is the solid man,” Kuznetsov said.
And the Capitals, whether you believe it yet or not, are the solid team.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell