The 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs was yet another postseason in which the Washington Capitals lost in the first round. But as the 2021 playoffs have unfolded following the Caps’ exit, several series involving other teams has been reminiscent of previous Capitals playoff series. NoVa Caps looks at some of those series and the similar series involving the Capitals.
Toronto Maple Leafs versus Montreal Canadiens
The Toronto Maple Leafs finished in first place in the Scotia North Division with a record of 35-15-7 for 77 standings points. Their opponent for the first round was the Montreal Canadiens, who finished in fourth place in the division with a record of 24-21-11 and 59 standings points; in addition, they held the worst record of any of the playoff teams. Many hockey pundits figured the Maple Leafs would likely advance to the third round of the playoffs, given the relative weak competition in their division, but would certainly make it past the first round.
The series started off with the Leafs and Canadiens splitting the first two games which were played in Toronto. The next two games were played in Montreal and were won by Toronto, who took a commanding 3-1 series lead. Based on the laws of probability, the Maple Leafs should have had an 87% chance of advancing to the second round. They just needed to win one of their next three games to do that. Instead, they fell behind in Games 5 and 6, but forced overtime, only to lose. They ended up losing Game 7 in a series in which they were heavily favored.
Photo: Andrew Lahodynsky/Getty Images
The series was reminiscent of the first round series between the Capitals and Canadiens in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs. That year, the Caps won the Presidents’ Trophy with a record of 54-15-13 for 121 points.
Many hockey pundits figured the team might finally win the Stanley Cup, or at least advance to the Stanley Cup Finals with a roster that had been an offensive powerhouse during the regular season. However, reality of the playoffs came crashing.
The Caps and Canadiens split the first two games to start the series. The Caps traveled to Montreal and beat the Canadiens in their own arena in Games 3 and 4 to a 3-1 series edge. The youthful Capitals then proceeded to lose Game 5 and then Games 6 and 7 as well. The series between Toronto and Montreal unfolded in a similar and almost eerie fashion.
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
The teams themselves were built very similarly. The Toronto Maple Leafs have a young core group of stars in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Morgan Reilly, whose combined salaries took up much of the salary cap. During the 2009-10 season, the Capitals had a similar young core group of stars in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green. In fact, the similarities were almost eerie. Both Auston Matthews and Alex Ovechkin scored tons of goals, were acknowledged to be the best player on the team, and also celebrated their birthdays on September 17. One main difference is that Matthews is a center and Ovechkin a winger but otherwise they are similar.
Marner and Matthews are similar to Backstrom and Ovechkin. Marner, as an elite winger, is the perfect complement to Matthews the center. Backstrom, as an elite center, is the perfect complement to Ovechkin, the winger. Similar to how Nylander was drafted just before the Leafs decided they would rebuild, the Caps drafted Semin before they decided they would rebuild during the 2003-04 season. Both Nylander and Semin have been considered scapegoats for their team’s postseason failures. Nylander has also been compared to Backstrom, has played with him on the Swedish team in the World Championships and even once lived with the Swedish center. (Note: Backstrom lived with the Nylander family for much of his rookie season of 2007-08, as William’s father Michael was a member of the Capitals). Rielly is a strong offensive defenseman, similar to Green who was an elite offensive defenseman with the Capitals.
There is even a similarity among their Head Coaches. Sheldon Keefe, the Head Coach for the Maple Leafs, had posted a very strong record with Toronto’s American Hockey League affiliate Toronto Marlies, winning the Calder Cup with them in 2018. His Marlies team had advanced to at least the third round during his four full seasons coaching them. The Capitals’ Head Coach at the time, Bruce Boudreau, had posted a very strong record with the Caps’ AHL team Hershey Bears. During his two full years with the Bears, he had coached them to a Calder Cup Championship in 2006 and lost in the Calder Cup Finals in 2007. Both had begun a season coaching in the minors, before being brought up to coach in the NHL after a Head Coach was fired. Both of them became Head Coach in late November; Boudreau became Head Coach of the Capitals on November 22, 2007 and Keefe became Head Coach of the Maple Leafs on November 20, 2019.
Colorado Avalanche versus Vegas Golden Knights
The Colorado Avalanche finished in first place in the Honda West Division with a record of 39-13-4 for 82 points and won their division on a tie breaker and thus, won the Presidents’ Trophy. The Vegas Golden Knights finished second in the division with a record of 40-14-2 with 82 points. The Avalanche faced the fourth-place St. Louis Blues and swept them to advance to the second round. The Golden Knights advanced to the third round after winning their series against the Minnesota Wild. As a result, a second round showdown was set between the two strongest teams of the division and, based on records, the two teams with the best records in the NHL.
Colorado won the first two games of their second round series against Vegas at home. But Vegas came back to all four of the next four contests, prevailing against Colorado in six games.
The Avalanche/Knights series was reminiscent of the two series played between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017, which were also matchups between the Presidents’ Trophy winner and their nearest division rival.
In the 2015-16 season, the Capitals finished in first place in the Metropolitan Division with a 56-18-8 record and 120 standings points, while the Penguins finished 48-26-8 for 104 points and had the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. Both teams prevailed in the first round of the playoffs, setting up a showdown in Round 2. In that series, the Capitals and Penguins had split the first two games at home but the Caps lost both games in Pittsburgh. The Capitals won Game 5 at home to stay alive but lost Game 6 in overtime and thus were ousted in the second round, an all-too typical ending for the team in post season.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images
In the 2016-17 season, the Capitals finished in first place in the Metropolitan Division with a 55-19-8 record and 118 standings points while the Penguins finished 50-21-11 for 111 points and had the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and the entire NHL. Both teams prevailed in the first round of the playoffs, setting up a showdown in Round 2 for the second year in a row. In that series, the Capitals lost their first two games at home but split in Pittsburgh, falling into a 3-1 series deficit. The Caps won Game 5 at home and Game 6 on the road but lost Game 7 at home and were, thus, ousted in the second round by Pittsburgh, once again.
Other Potential Parallels
As the Stanley Cup Playoffs unfold, there may be other parallels to past playoff series. The current series between Tampa Bay and the New York Islanders is a rematch of the Head Coaches from the third round of the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run when Barry Trotz opposed Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
If the Stanley Cup Finals is between the Golden Knights and the Islanders, there could be a rematch between Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov, who were the starting netminders during the 2009 playoff series between the Capitals and the Penguins. In addition, Trotz would be facing the team that was the Caps’ opponent for their Stanley Cup victory of 2018.
By Diane Doyle