Photo: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
With the Washington Capitals sporting a league-best record and pulling away from their Metropolitan Division opponents, some Capitals fans are having flashbacks to the franchise’s three Presidents’ Trophy-winning seasons that ended in bitter disappointment. It’s not just the Capitals who have seen dominant regular season play evaporate in April and May. The last team to win the Presidents’ Trophy and then go on to win the Cup in the same year was the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013, a lockout year. The Detroit Red Wings were the last team to win both in a non-lockout year (2008). Just last year, the Tampa Bay Lightning got swept by the 8th-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round after posting an NHL-record 62 wins.
Teams that spend the last several weeks of the season without having to worry about making the Stanley Cup Playoffs seem to have a hard time getting their mojo back when the postseason hits.
In 2009-10, the Capitals got off to a 19-5-6 start to the season. While they won a franchise-record 14 straight games after that, they did have a few three-game losing streaks. They dropped three in a row at the end of March and concluded the season with a 3-2 shootout loss at home. While they won five in a row in April, the Capitals lost four of their last nine games (5-1-3). That big lead they had on everyone else did not do them any favors as they fell in seven games to the Montreal Canadiens in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Capitals jumped out to a torrid start once before, back in 2015-16 when they opened 35-8-3 before finishing the season 21-10-5. While they earned a respectable record down the stretch, being up by around 20 points for half of the year gave them had nothing to play for from December to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As a result, they developed some bad habits, like not starting on time and not playing their best hockey for a full 60 minutes. By the time May rolled around, they couldn’t find the rhythm that they played with the first half of the season and lost in the second round to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
The next year, the Capitals started 19-7-3 in their first 29 games and 39-11-6 in their first 56 but they went through some struggles after that, which included a four-game losing streak, the team’s longest since 2014-15. After the Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets crept behind their backs for first place in the Metropolitan Division, the Capitals won 11 of their final 14 games (11-2-1) but they started drifting away from the pack again and had nothing to play for during the last few games of the regular season. That didn’t do them any good once more as they struggled against the second wild-card Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, despite winning, and fell to the Penguins in the second round.
It’s hard for any team to just “flip the switch” come Springtime after not playing for anything for at least half of the year. Look at the Lightning last season. They were up 20, 25 points on everyone else last year and thought that they had left everyone back in the dust. While the Lightning were able to come out hot in Game 1 against the Blue Jackets in the first round last season, they just scored five goals in the last 11 periods and were dominated the rest of the series.
The Capitals have been dominant this year, sporting a 24-6-5 record and becoming the first (and so far only) team to reach 50 points. Their 15-3-1 record on the road is also best in the league, and they tied an NHL record for fewest games to get 15 wins on the road. The New York Islanders are still nipping at the Capitals’ heels, seven points back with three games in hand, so there’s certainly no possibility that the Capitals will start to cruise at this point.
Should the Capitals pull away and find themselves without much to play for in February and March, the one advantage they will have is that they have an experienced group of Stanley Cup winners who are anxious to grab the title one more time.
The MLB’s Washington Nationals’ World Series win reminded the Capitals how fun winning it all can be, and the teams share a special bond. It was obvious when the Nationals’ brought the World Series Trophy to Capital One Arena that the Capitals’ veterans rededicated themselves to getting back to the Stanley Cup Final. This is a group that is anxious to give Washington sports fans another parade in 2020.
By Harrison Brown