Tearing up the playbook: it's the Caps' year, again

by Sam Stockton | 2/17/17 1:55am

Well, it’s February, and, once again, the Washington Capitals are head and shoulders above the rest of the teams in the National Hockey League. In fact, the Capitals have the second most points in the league, have only lost three times in 2017 and have scored five or more goals in 11 consecutive home games. Furthermore, they are at the top of every NHL power rankings. They lead the league in Hockey-Reference.com’s “Simple Rating System,” which rates the relative strength of every team in the NHL. They are second in goals against average and rank among the best in the league on the power play and penalty kill. With this much success, how could the Capitals possibly lose?

Before we let Alex Ovechkin hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup, it’s worth noting that people have seemingly praised the Capitals every year since Ovechkin first made the playoffs in 2008. Yet despite the consistent success, Ovechkin has never even made it to the Eastern Conference finals, let alone the Stanley Cup Finals.

I grew up in Washington, D.C. and have watched the excitement around this team build since Ovechkin entered the league in 2005. I think Caps fans find themselves in a unique bind. They are at once Golden State Warriors fans and Cleveland Browns fans. The Capitals are not a storied NHL franchise, yet they have emerged as a consistent contender in recent years. This can make a Caps fan feel like a fair-weather fan. At the same time, the Capitals have never won anything. The Ovechkin-era Capitals have never made it past the second round of the playoffs, and the franchise’s only trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998 ended in an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings. So on top of being a fair-weather fan, you’re the fan of a team that can’t win.

The Capitals have come to a point where they are dismissed as a “regular season” team. The criticism is fair, and the Caps have to recognize that this narrative will be leveraged against them until they beat it and actually win something.

As a lifelong Caps fan, I can only imagine that rooting for the Caps is like being in love with someone out of your league who constantly drops heavy hints that the two of you are about to get married. Then just as you’re going out to a fancy dinner, and the champagne comes to the table, your date knocks over everything that was on the table and leaves abruptly before you’ve even ordered. But they do the same thing the next year, and you fall for it all over again.

Every year, the Caps have one of the best records in the league. They play lights-out hockey down the stretch, but come playoffs the team just can’t finish the job. Last year’s run is a perfect example. In 2016, the Caps were the best the NHL had to offer from the very start of the season. They looked unbeatable. In the first round, they took down the Philadelphia Flyers, making it look about as easy as a six-game NHL playoff series can look. Then they found themselves matched up with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Heroics from T.J. Oshie in Game 1 had the league buzzing: was it finally the Caps’ year? Then the Caps dropped three straight. From a 3-1 hole, Washington showed herculean strength to hold off the Pens in Game 5, sending the series back to Pittsburgh. There, the Capitals fell behind 3-0, only to rally back to force overtime. They dominated the overtime period, got a heroic diving shot block from Jay Beagle to keep the game alive. However, the Penguins’ Nick Bonino found a rebound and blew it past Braden Holtby to give Pittsburgh a 4-3 win in Game 6. Season over. There was no doubt in my mind that the Capitals would have won a Game 7 in Washington, and if that’s not proof that loving something can mess with your head, I don’t know what is.

This year’s Caps have filled all the voids that plagued previous Caps teams. They have found a playmaking center to play behind Nicklas Backstrom in Evgeny Kuznetsov. In Oshie, they have a talented winger to play on the first line with Backstrom and Ovechkin. The Caps have four lines that can score goals and three defensive pairings that can present challenges to an opponent in all three zones. I don’t see one reason the Caps shouldn’t win the Stanley Cup this year, but I’ve said that before.

Musings of the Week:

(1) I think I speak for everyone outside the City of New York (and probably most people within it) when I say I don’t want to hear another word about the New York Knicks. Somehow the Knicks have built up this mythology about being a great franchise with a storied history who play in this “Mecca of basketball” without actually doing anything on the court. I’m sick of hearing about it. I don’t care about Charles Oakley or James Dolan — as far as I’m concerned, they’re both in the wrong. The only debate I want to hear about the Knicks is whether the next Knick to win a title has been born yet.

(2) Here is your mid-February reminder that the professional baseball season is ridiculously long. The season ended in the wee hours of Nov. 2 when Kris Bryant threw out Michael Martinez at first to clinch the Chicago Cubs’ first title since 1908. Now, in mid-February, the Major League’s 30 teams are back in training after just a few short months off. After how good the World Series last year was, I, for one, am excited to see everybody get back at it in 2017.

(3) It came out this week that Bill Belichick will be narrating a documentary on World War II to be released on PBS in the spring. I cannot explain enough how much I love this idea. Because I love Belichick and know he has strong military ties, I think it will be a compelling program, but more importantly I’d like this to open the door for more figures from the sports world to narrate documentaries. Tell me you wouldn’t listen to Brett Favre voice over a Civil War program or Ovechkin narrate Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. This is a growth market, and I’d like to see it tapped into.