To fans of the Washington Capitals, it seems like the concept of the team “choking” in the playoffs is as inevitable as death and taxes. No matter how good they are in the regular season and what accolades they might accomplish, it all changes when they head into the playoffs. All winter long, the fans feel the euphoria of victory while they “rock the red,” but come mid-May, those feelings always seem to change into heartbreak and humiliation.
For much of the 2015-2016 season, starting from the very beginning, the sad irony of the situation was that Washington Capitals fans truly believed this year would be different. Even as the top hockey prognosticators began to call Washington the best team in the NHL and prohibitive Stanley Cup favorites, the fans — ever so dangerously — allowed themselves to buy into the hype. They believed that their grizzled coach — Barry Trotz — finally created a squad that preached the values of two-way, team-oriented hockey. He was able to harness the scoring power of Alexander Ovechkin, yet still turn him into a player who cared almost as much about defense and he did about scoring goals. He had a Veznia trophy caliber goaltender in Braden Holtby, who’d be personally coached by goaltending shaman Mitch Korn. They had seasoned, tough-minded veterans along the blue line. They had size, strength, speed, talent, and experience along their top three lines. They bolstered their top lines by adding players with “bright lights” experience like Justin Williams and TJ Oshie.
Given the way the Capitals played throughout the 2015-2016 regular season, that false hope seemed far from misplaced. They finished with a ridiculous 120 points, 11 points more than any other NHL team. From early March, they basically “coasted” through the regular season, with their playoff birth and top seed in the Eastern Conference essentially all but sewn up. They were 2nd in the NHL in goals scored, 2nd in goals allowed, 5th in Power Play percentage, and 3rd in penalty kill percentage. In other words: they were really good at scoring goals, and preventing other teams from scoring goals.
Yet once the post-season started, we realized that not very much changed. No matter how good they were, it ended up being the same old story with the Washington Capitals.
Sure, they quickly went up 3-0 over the precocious Philadelphia Flyers, but that’s when the ghost of playoffs past started creeping up for the Capitals. It took them three tries — including two losses where they were outscored 4 to 1 — to finish off Philadelphia. They blew a 3-2 lead in Game 1 against Pittsburgh, but managed to hold on to the win in overtime. And then, from there, it all went downhill. For a team as consistently dominant as the Capitals were in the regular season, they just couldn’t match the energy, speed, and confidence shown by the eventual Stanley Cup champions. Washington dropped four of its next five games against Pittsburgh resulting in yet another playoff defeat.
It’s been said that the legacy of the Capitals remains being a regular season heavyweight that fails to live up to expectations during the “second season.” This year, was no different.