The incarnation of the Washington Capitals we’ve seen through the first half of the 2015-16 season has been nothing if not a well-oiled machine, one that’s been expertly constructed from the top down, with the singular purpose of finally getting over the postseason hump. Surely no team is without flaws, and the Caps aren’t necessarily an exception to that rule. But any of those relatively minute shortcomings have been suppressed by their laundry list of overwhelming strengths.
While everything has once again run through the usual suspects at the top of the roster, what makes this version of the Capitals particularly nightmarish to go up against is that there doesn’t really appear to be a particularly glaring weakness to be exploited by a crafty game plan.
Thanks to the emergence of Evgeny Kuznetsov as a legitimate building block on the second line as well as two shrewd moves to acquire a pair of top-six wingers on the cheap this past summer, it’s become harder than ever for opponents to target a single scoring line like they have in the past. Even though they’re a top-ten possession team at five-on-five this year, their lethal man advantage persists as the team’s bread and butter. And with the living embodiment of a brick wall between the pipes cleaning up all of the mistakes made in front of him, their room for error is higher than it is for most.
Put all of those puzzle pieces together, and what you’ve got yourself is a team that’s run roughshod over the rest of the league. All of it’s been particularly remarkable given the 180 they’ve done as a franchise since Adam Oates’ feeble reign as bench boss.
Still, regardless of how impressive they’ve been thus far, it’s a team that will once again ultimately have its season judged as a success or failure based on how it fares in the postseason.
In an attempt to provide some context for this run of steamrolling play they’ve cobbled together, I compiled a list of the top regular-season teams we’ve seen over the past decade. Since ’05 there have been 45 teams to finish in the top ten of both non-shootout wins (ROW), and overall goal differential (G plus/minus) in a single season:
|Senators||2005-2006||50 (2nd)||107 (1st)||2nd Round|
|Red Wings||2005-2006||54 (1st)||96 (2nd)||1st Round|
|Bruins||2013-2014||51 (1st)||87 (1st)||2nd Round|
|Capitals||2009-2010||49 (1st)||86 (1st)||1st Round|
|Bruins||2008-2009||49 (1st)||80 (1st)||2nd Round|
|Canucks||2010-2011||50 (1st)||78 (1st)||Stanley Cup Final|
|Red Wings||2007-2008||49 (1st)||73 (1st)||Stanley Cup Champion|
|Senators||2006-2007||46 (3rd)||70 (1st)||Stanley Cup Final|
|Sabres||2006-2007||43 (7th)||66 (2nd)||Conference Final|
|Red Wings||2006-2007||48 (2nd)||61 (3rd)||Conference Final|
|Rangers||2014-2015||49 (1st)||61 (1st)||Conference Final|
|Bruins||2011-2012||40 (7th)||61 (1st)||1st Round|
|Ducks||2013-2014||51 (1st)||60 (2nd)||2nd Round|
|Sharks||2006-2007||49 (1st)||59 (4th)||2nd Round|
|Predators||2006-2007||45 (4th)||59 (4th)||1st Round|
|Blackhawks||2009-2010||43 (4th)||59 (2nd)||Stanley Cup Champion|
|Ducks||2006-2007||44 (5th)||56 (6th)||Stanley Cup Champion|
|Bruins||2010-2011||44 (2nd)||55 (2nd)||Stanley Cup Champion|
|Penguins||2011-2012||42 (6th)||55 (2nd)||1st Round|
|Lightning||2014-2015||47 (2nd)||53 (2nd)||Stanley Cup Final|
|Sharks||2008-2009||47 (2nd)||52 (2nd)||1st Round|
|Blackhawks*||2012-2013||30 (2nd)||52 (1st)||Stanley Cup Champion|
|Red Wings||2008-2009||45 (4th)||51 (3rd)||Stanley Cup Final|
|Blues||2011-2012||45 (2nd)||51 (3rd)||2nd Round|
|Blues||2013-2014||43 (5th)||51 (3rd)||1st Round|
|Blackhawks||2008-2009||42 (7th)||51 (3rd)||Conference Final|
|Canucks||2011-2012||43 (3rd)||50 (4th)||1st Round|
|Canucks||2009-2010||45 (2nd)||50 (3rd)||2nd Round|
|Sharks||2009-2010||44 (3rd)||49 (4th)||Conference Final|
|Blackhawks||2013-2014||40 (8th)||49 (4th)||Conference Final|
|Sharks||2013-2014||41 (6th)||46 (5th)||1st Round|
|Penguins*||2012-2013||33 (1st)||43 (2nd)||Conference Final|
|Sabres||2005-2006||47 (3rd)||42 (3rd)||Conference Final|
|Rangers||2011-2012||47 (1st)||40 (5th)||Conference Final|
|Sharks||2010-2011||43 (4th)||35 (4th)||Conference Final|
|Stars||2007-2008||40 (6th)||33 (3rd)||Conference Final|
|Avalanche||2013-2014||47 (3rd)||29 (8th)||1st Round|
|Ducks||2005-2006||40 (10th)||29 (7th)||Conference Final|
|Capitals||2008-2009||46 (3rd)||28 (7th)||2nd Round|
|Penguins||2007-2008||40 (6th)||28 (5th)||Stanley Cup Final|
|Rangers||2013-2014||41 (6th)||24 (9th)||Stanley Cup Final|
|Bruins*||2012-2013||25 (6th)||21 (4th)||Stanley Cup Final|
|Flyers||2007-2008||39 (9th)||18 (6th)||Conference Final|
|Kings*||2012-2013||25 (5th)||17 (7th)||Conference Final|
|Ducks||2014-2015||43 (3rd)||7 (18th)||Conference Final|
*in 48 games during the lockout-shortened season
As things stand, the Capitals are currently on a league-leading pace of 59 ROW and a plus-96 goal differential. Chances are that they won’t necessarily keep up quite as torrid a pace as they’re on for the entirety of the campaign, but even so they have enough of a lead to stumble and still wind up finishing the year as one of the most dominant regular season teams we’ve seen in the last decade.
The takeaway here is that there’s certainly been a healthy share of teams that have been able to parlay their year-long success into an extended postseason run. Based on the list above, 26 of the 40 Conference Finalists, 12 of the 20 teams to make the Stanley Cup final were in the top-10 of both categories, and 5 of the 10 eventual champions were in the top-10 of both categories during that particular regular season. Not that it should be especially surprising that very good teams continued to be very good past the 82-game mark.
But while that much is true, it once again serves as a sobering reminder that success in the regular season, even in the most extreme of instances, ultimately doesn’t guarantee anything once the slate is cleared and everyone needs to win 4 of 7 games to stay alive.
The old cliche of ‘there’s a reason they play the games’ is a groan-inducing trope that tends to be used as a crutch in place of meaningful analysis. But there’s still merit to it, in the sense that forecasting the playoffs is anything but an exact science. While the 82-game regular season is a marathon in which the cream generally rises to the top, the postseason is more of a sprint. As such any little unforeseen bounce of the puck or injury to a key contributor can change fortunes, throwing a monkey wrench in our expectations. That’s why we’ve seen 10 of those supremely successful regular season teams listed above crash and burn in the 1st round after being upset by opponents that looked discernibly weaker on paper.
Just like in ‘09-’10 when the Capitals, who led the league in nearly every single category, were bounced early by a Montreal Canadiens team riding the back of a hot goalie. Which is one of many reasons why either attributing all of the success or placing all of the blame on any one individual player, regardless of how bright their star shines, is an incredibly faulty mindset. There are too many things that have to come together at the right time for a team to be the last one standing, and many of those factors are out of a team’s control.
All a team can really do is put themselves in a position to succeed by hanging around long enough to reap what they sow. This version of the Washington Capitals may very well again come up excruciatingly short this spring, but that shouldn’t be conflated with something they’ve failed to deliver at this point in time.
With the uneven play by nearly every other preseason favorite out East, the seas look to have parted for them this season. By laying waste to the rest of the league in the manner which they have thus far, they appear as well positioned as any of those peers to finally jump over the hurdles that have tripped them up over the years. There’s a lot of season left, but so far, so good.
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