Next Year, DC thrives on the ineptitude of sports in Washington. And for good reason: a point I reiterate often is that every major city has seen a team play a conference final since 1998, except for Washington. Hooray, us.
Yet, I often say it’s not all bad. And when it’s not all bad, it’s usually because of the Washington Capitals.
The 2009 team will forever be remembered in infamy, falling in the first round of the playoffs and breaking the hearts of red rockers everywhere. But I prefer to think of that team differently: the most dominant collection of talent on display in Washington since the Redskins of the 1980s.
Now, in 2015, we have another iteration. The Caps currently lead the Metropolitan Division with a sterling 17-5-1 record. They are in the midst of a five-game winning streak and have cemented themselves as one of the top three teams in the NHL. The question on everyone’s mind: is this the year they finally take the next step?
Seeing as this is the best Caps team since that 2009 juggernaut, I figured a bit of comparison is in order.
You’ll never get me to think otherwise. The 2012 and 2014 Nationals come close, but the 2009 Capitals are the best team D.C. has seen in the last two decades. In fact, they may be the best hockey team the NHL has seen since the 2005 Detroit Red Wings posted a plus-96 goal differential on the way to 124 points. The only difference between the Caps and other legendary teams is that they didn’t win a Stanley Cup.
Had Jaroslav Halak not been born, I’m convinced it would have gone differently. This team wasn’t just good – it was absolutely, unequivocally, absurdly dominant. You know what happened in 2009? It became almost impossible to score. That was the year when the precipitous decline in goals began. You know who wasn’t affected? Alex Ovechkin and his band of sniping miscreants. The Caps scored 313 goals in 2009. The next-highest total since then was the 2011 Pittsburgh Penguins, who netted a measly 273. In fact, the Caps were so good on offense in 2009 that they outscored the second-highest-scoring team by 45 goals. The league average was 233 that year!
And defensively, they weren’t pushovers either. They weren’t great, no – they were average, but the script that says they were horrid is simply wrong. They allowed 227 goals.
This team was just…I can’t even find the words. They scored first so many times it was impossible to count. I know offense isn’t everything but this type of offense was so wholly destructive that other teams really didn’t stand a chance save for a goalie standing on his head. The Caps had 10 players score at least 10 goals, and seven scored at least 21. SEVEN GUYS SCORED AT LEAST 21 GOALS. Even Mike Green set a record for consecutive games with a goal by a defenseman. They were the only team to have a 50-goal scorer, a 40-goal scorer, and a 30-goal scorer. They won 13 consecutive games. This group was incredible.
Yet they had two flaws that ultimately led to their undoing. One, they couldn’t kill penalties. Not at all. Their defense overall wasn’t terrible but that penalty kill was horrendous, coming in at only 78 percent.
The other problem was a lack of net presence. Jose Theodore was brought in to shore up the goalie issue but he didn’t pan out; Semyon Varlamov was not ready, though he posted decent numbers; Michal Neuvirth showed promise but ultimately was nothing special. These three thoroughly average goaltenders were one of the main causes of the Caps’ undoing in the playoffs.
121 points. Nothing to show for it. Forever remembered as dominant, and forever known as an abject failure.
And here we have the modern-day Caps. Many of the names are still the same: Ovechkin continues his stellar play, Backstrom remains arguably the league’s best overall center, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Jason Chimera, and Jay Beagle still hold down the fort.
They are not as dominant. But they are just as good.
After that 2009 season, the Caps decided that defense was the way to go. This caused their offense to suffer, and Ovechkin failed to find footing. Simply put, this team could either play good defense and not score, or play good offense and not defend.
This year is the first in a long time where this is no longer true. The Caps can score with the best of them and are as stingy as any team in the league at preventing goals. And there are two reasons for this, two huge reasons that the 2009 team lacked.
First is coaching. Bruce Boudreau is a phenomenal coach and one of the seminal figures in the last 15 years of D.C. sports. Without him, the Caps never would have become the annual playoff contender they are. Remember: this was a bad, bad, baaaad team, and he literally turned them around mid-season to become a division winner in 2008. Boudreau is one of the most successful coaches this city has ever seen, and his influence is still prominent in Anaheim, where the Ducks are perennial contenders.
But Boudreau was passive about defense and his teams lacked toughness. Dale Hunter and Adam Oates brought toughness but no offense. Enter Barry Trotz, centerpiece of one of my favorite pictures…
…and who has crafted a team as skilled as it is physical, something this town has been clamoring for. Trotz has turned Ovechkin into a true two-way player, and he has made his skilled forwards passionate about playing on both sides of the ice. Frankly, this is a different team because of Trotz.
More importantly than Trotz, though, is the savior between the pipes. Braden Holtby is one of the most underrated athletes in his own city and he may be the most important. Fans seem to have this mentality that Holtby is not as good as people say. Fans who think this are wrong. He is not aggressively dominant, but he is clearly – CLEARLY, people – a top-five goaltender and provides an edge that the Caps have missed for years. Die hards will always pine for the glory days (why?) of Olie Kolzig, but Holtby is far better. Far, far better. And he’s the reason this team is more Cup-ready than that 121-point buzzsaw from 2009.
This is the year
I’m not saying the Caps will win the Stanley Cup. That would be foolish. Hockey, more than almost any other sport, is based on factors other than skill. An impossible save here. A bad bounce there. Anything can happen, and anything will happen.
But folks, this is the best chance we have. This is the best chance for Next Year, D.C. to mean “next year, we will win ANOTHER championship” instead of the depressing penultimate droll it currently stands for. I thought the Nationals would be that chance; I was dead wrong.
This is it. This is the year. This is the year that Washington could finally celebrate that golden moment, kissing Lord Stanley’s Cup while the fans literally paint the town red.