Mention the year 2009 to a Caps fan and see what reaction you get. Most will cringe at the memory and experience frustration and anger. At the time, the season had shown the most potential for the Ovechkin-era Capitals. Sadly, so much promise could only end one way for a team that has become synonyms with the phrase heart-breaking playoff loss. Now, we know that no two seasons are the same, but we are going to take a look at the 2009 Capitals and the 2015 Capitals. Both seasons ended with deflating game 7 losses in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Luckily for the 2015 Capitals, that is just about where the similarities end.
The 2008-09 season for the Capitals was the height of Bruce Bourdreau’s tenure in DC. A South East Division championship and a record of 50-24-8 earned the boys from China Town the second seed in the 2009 playoffs. Pushing the puck at all costs, the run and gun Capitals were never shy about scoring goals. Even Alexander Semin led the team in plus/minus with a (+25) rating. Alexander Ovechkin also put up impressive numbers. The Great 8 accumulated 56 goals, 54 assists, and 110 points. Three different skaters scored 30+ goals in the regular season (Ovechkin-56, Semin-34 and Green-31). The 2008-09 season is also considered by many hockey enthusiasts to be the high point of Mike Green’s career with the Caps. While Green was never known for his ability and skill as a defenseman, he did put up points like he was named Phil Kessel. Green set the NHL record for most consecutive goals scored by a defenseman with 8 goals in 8 games. Now that we have relived the glory years of Mike Green, we can move on to what the Caps actually lacked that year. The answer is short and sweet, a shut down defensemen. Karl Alzner only played 30 games as a young d-man and John Carlson was not even a thought yet.
In a narrative that is all too familiar for the Caps, the end to this fairy tale season does not match what could have been. In the playoffs, Varlamov replaced Jose Theodore in the net after 2 games. Varly’s numbers were actually pretty solid with a 2.53 GAA and .918 SV% for the playoffs. The Caps also came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Rangers in the first round with a game 7 overtime goal from the heroic Sergei Fedorov. The second round was a hard-fought series (aside from a game 7 collapse) that was ultimately won in 7 games by the Penguins, who went on to win the Stanley Cup. Dueling hat tricks in game 2 by Ovechkin and Crosby did make dramatics worthy of the silver screen.
Enter Barry Trotz. Cue the music in Cast Away when Tom Hanks is finally found drifting in the Pacific Ocean. Trotz gave the Caps stability and held his players responsible at a time when they were used to Adam Oates letting them run wild. A record of 45-26-11 and 101 points was good enough to finish second place in the Metropolitan Division and earn a spot in the playoffs. Under Trotz the Caps were able to grind out wins during the regular season by exhibiting “playoff style” hockey. Led by the addition of Brooks Orpiks and Matt Niskanen, the DC team had a new focus on defense-first hockey. Strong forechecking accompanied by hard work gave the Caps a reputation they never had under Bruce, a hard team to play against. The cycle game the Caps showed off was jaw dropping at times, especially if you watched just about any other team in the East. It has been a long time since we have seen that much strength on the puck. Ovechkin lived up to his reputation by scoring 53 goals, 28 assists and 81 points. Even though he did not have 100 points (no player in the league did), and had fewer assists than in 2008-09, he actually played a much more deadly game, creating unpredictable scoring chances from every on the ice. To be fair to Ovi, he has not had a dynamic goal scorer to compliment him since Semin was a Cap, so it is understandable that his assists were down. Watching the Capitals play this season, it was obvious they were playing a more complete style of hockey that did not feature a terribly slow trap game, a la Dale Hunter.
In the playoffs the Caps experienced two entirely different series against the Islanders and the Rangers. The first round featured more hits than any other series for the entire playoffs. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. After beating the Islanders in 7 games, the Caps fell to the Rangers in the second round. The phrase heart-breaking playoff loss remained relevant after the Caps squandered a 3-1 series lead to lose in overtime of game 7 against the Rangers. As the series was far less physical than the previous, it became more of a cat and mouse game. Braden Holtby had one of the best goalie performances of the playoffs with a ridiculous GAA of 1.71 and SV% of .944.
How the Caps can avoid similar fates
We all know what happened in 2009-10. Coming off a second round exit the year prior, the Capitals won the President’s Trophy. This was all for nothing as the team suffered an early exit from the playoffs thanks to Montreal. By all accounts the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons were fantastic regular season successes, but this success did not translate into the playoffs. The Caps will avoid repeating this blunder and here is why:
The Washington Capitals, under Barry Trotz, have become the nemesis of the Boudreau Caps: a sound defensive team with a strong goaltender. Thanks to their defense-first mindset, the Caps have the ability to outwork any team in the NHL. The addition of Justin Williams and TJ Oshie will only add to the grit and skill of the team. We have all heard enough about Mr. Game 7 over the last 3 weeks so I will spare you the repetitive details. It is now time to get on the Trotz bandwagon and watch the Caps finally realize their potential. In 2015-16 the Capitals should be favored to make the Eastern Conference championship and finally make the Stanley Cup Finals in the Ovechkin era. Oh, you’ve heard that one before? Let’s see how it all plays out…
By Brian Heberer