Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images
There is no such thing as peaking too early. Let’s just get that out of the way. That’s a phrase, however, that is very popular around the Washington Capitals right now.
If you look at last season, not just for Washington, but the entire NHL, you can see where the argument comes from. The Capitals stormed out of the gates and had a double-digit point lead after the New Year. They then stumbled later in the season and lost in just the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, after being the runaway favorites to win it all.
As for the rest of the league, you had two teams in particular that struggled for the first half of the season, while then improving later in the season and taking their runs all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Of course, I am talking about the San Jose Sharks and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Let’s start with the Sharks. On January 7, 2016, they were the fourth-worst team in the entire NHL. At 18-17-2 they had just 38 points in 37 games. They were only better than the Edmonton Oilers, Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets. You look at the second half of their season, and they went 28-13-4, pocketing 60 points which was good enough for third-best from January 7th to the end of the season.
The only team ahead of them? The Pittsburgh Penguins. 40 games into their season, the Penguins were just 19-16-5. That was nothing to write home about. Then you go to their second half and they were 29-10-3. They were, as mentioned, second-best in the NHL from January 7th onward.
So if the Sharks were third-best and the Penguins were second-best, who was the best from January 7th on? The Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks were 16-16-7 on January 7th, which was just one point better than the Sharks. They turned it on for the second half the of the season. Where did they end up?
Knocked out in the first round. They peaked at the right time didn’t they? They started to hit their stride in mid-January. Why couldn’t they win and go deep in the playoffs? Why did the Sharks go far in the playoffs, when in their final ten games of the season, they were an average 5-5-0?
Why? Because there is no such thing as peaking early. There is no set point in the calendar where coaches and players point and say “OK, now we should give it our all”. Sure, you don’t want your team to expend all their energy in October and November, but that doesn’t mean you wait until late in the season to turn it on.
Let’s go back a couple of seasons and see how our Stanley Cup winners did in the second half of their seasons. In 2015, the Blackhawks were only 21-16-4 in the second half of their season. Going into the playoffs that year they were 5-7-0 in their final 12 games.
What about the Los Angeles Kings in 2014? In their final 41 games they were……wait for it……21-16-4. In their final eight games they were 3-4-1. The Kings that year didn’t even turn it on until Game 4 of the playoffs. They were down 3-0 in the first round.
Go to the Kings in 2012, who were dominant that postseason. Their final 41 games saw them go just 20-13-8. That’s a fine record, but according to “get hot at the right time” not a great record.
The Capitals are not peaking too soon. If you really, REALLY want to use this argument, they aren’t hitting their stride a whole lot earlier than Pittsburgh did last season. The Penguins really started playing well last season around December 21, that’s when a lot of their wins started coming. The Capitals’ wins started coming on December 5.
Since the fifth of December, the Capitals are 16-2-2, which is the best in the NHL. Is anyone going to sit and tell me that the Caps aren’t going to do well in the playoffs because they started playing well two and a half weeks before they were supposed to?
Why could the Capitals go far in the playoffs? Their outstanding defense. Washington ranks number one in goals-against per game. The last time a team won the Stanley Cup that ranked 6th or worst in that stat was in 2009, the Penguins, who would go on to win the Cup that year ranked 17th in GAA that season.
Why will the Caps have success late in the season and playoffs? They average 3.6 goals for per game, 1.55 goals-against per game, they have a 24.1% success rate on the power play, and a 90.2% success rate on the penalty kill since December 5.
If you’re going to give a reason why the Capitals aren’t going to go far in the playoffs come up with a better excuse than “They are peaking too soon”. It’s a lazy argument that means nothing.
“Honestly, I don’t really care where we are, as long as we’re in the playoffs,” center Nicklas Backstrom said, which, I think, is the best way one could put it. Just get in the playoffs and you never know what can happen.
By CJ Witt