The Washington Capitals are the best team in the NHL. In a jumbled Eastern Conference, that much is clear.
The Caps have scored the second-most goals in the league and allowed the fewest. Their plus-55 goal differential is far and away the best in the league. Alex Ovechkin is still the most dangerous scorer around. Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie were excellent offseason additions. Braden Holtby might win the Vezina. Evgeny Kuznetsov is tied for fifth in the entire NHL in points.
In a conference where a second strong team seemingly doesn’t exist at the moment, the Capitals could make history.
As it stands on the morning of January 25, the Capitals are 12 points ahead of the Florida Panthers for the Eastern Conference lead with two games in hand.
That’s historical dominance. Not since the days of the mid-90’s Red Wings have we seen a team open up this kind of lead over the second-best team in their conference this early in the season.
The 1995-96 Red Wings, they of 62 wins, 131 points and a plus-144 goal differential, finished first in the West by 27 points. That’s the gold standard regular season dominance. In fact, since then, no team has finished the season with even a 20-point lead while only three squads managed a 15-point advantage.
The last of those teams was the 2009-10 version of the Capitals, which finished with 121 points, 18 clear of the New Jersey Devils. The 2002 Red Wings finished 17 points ahead of both the Sharks and Avalanche while the 1999 Dallas Stars finished first in the West by 16 points.
This would seem to put the Capitals in good company. The 1996 iteration of Detroit lost in the Western Conference Finals to an upstart Colorado team. The 1999 Stars team beat the Sabres in the Stanley Cup while 2002 Detroit had one of the more dominant playoff runs we’ve ever seen.
In fact, the only team of the group that didn’t make a deep playoff run was the 2010 Capitals team, which fell in seven games in the first round to Montreal.
And that brings us back to the original point. This Washington team is the best squad in the NHL…so now what?
The Capitals have made the playoffs seven times during the Ovechkin era. They’ve won four playoff series in that time. They’ve yet to make a Conference Final appearance, much less a Stanley Cup. Fun and promising regular seasons have given way to disappoint springs on a near-annual basis.
And it’s not as if things were any better in the pre-Ovi era. The team’s lone Stanley Cup appearance was a sweep at the hands of the Red Wings. The franchise’s first season saw eight wins. They improved to 11 the next year. It would be a full decade before they won half their games.
All of this is to say, there’s a lot riding on this postseason. We’ve already established this team will make the playoffs – likely by a wide margin. But, what then?
Allow me to toss out a scenario that’s so narratively perfect, it would make Steven Spielberg weep with jealous rage.
Let’s say the Penguins pass New Jersey at some point (not unlikely) and settle in as the Metro’s fourth seed. The Capitals, who have secured the top seed in this scenario, take on the Penguins, the team they were supposed to dominate the Eastern Conference with for the past decade. Pick an angle. Crosby vs. Ovechkin, revenge for the Washington collapse in the 2009 playoffs, anything. The Capitals win – Ovechkin finally bests Sid in a playoff series, the Caps move on.
In the other Metro series, the Rangers have defeated the Islanders to move on to face Washington. This would be the sixth time these two teams have met in the playoffs since 2009. The Rangers have won three of the five previous meetings and have advanced the three of the past four Eastern Conference Finals. They are what they Capitals were supposed to be: a consistent presence in April, May and June.
The Capitals defeat them and move on to face the Atlantic Champ, the Tampa Bay Lightning. This narrative might not feel as obvious, but it’s there. The Lightning swept the Capitals in the 2011 playoffs, with a team that only slightly resembles the current squad. But more importantly, the Lightning are stocked with European talent. At some point the mantle of “team that makes the best use of Eastern European scouting” moved from Detroit to Washington to Tampa (although Detroit is still really good at it so maybe this was all for second place).
And the Lightning have already been to two Conference Finals and a Stanley Cup with this model. That’s more than the Caps can say. Until they defeat the Lightning to move onto the Stanley Cup.
At this point, it doesn’t matter who they play in the Cup or even if they win. This would be the most successful season in Capitals history. They’d have gotten revenge for all four second round series they’ve dropped over the last decade, defeated their NHL-created rival and their actual playoff nemesis and advanced further in the playoffs than they have in two decades.
Of course, this is all a pipe dream for now. This group may be the most talented in franchise history, but their fans aren’t going to believe it they show it in the postseason. Until then, this is just another exciting, high-scoring Capitals team that’s slowly building up the confidence of some of America’s most-tortured sports fans.
The question is whether or not they’ll be let down again.