If you’re a superstitious sports fan, you may find yourself betting against the Washington Capitals this post-season.
Yes, Washington dominated competition this season, and, yes, the roster, from top to bottom, is as loaded as any. The Capitals have superstar-level talent in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. There are secondary scorers such as T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson. The defense is solid, Braden Holtby’s goaltending is among the league’s best and, as if the roster wasn’t strong enough, Washington made the biggest splash at the trade deadline with the acquisition of Kevin Shattenkirk.
But the Capitals also won the Presidents’ Trophy, and there are some who still hold the belief that being crowned the regular season champion is about the worst way to enter the post-season.
For each team that has won the Presidents’ Trophy, the post-season comes with considerable expectations and quite possibly more pressure than any other team. That’s not unwarranted, of course. One would expect the league’s best team during the season to be one of the frontrunners for the Stanley Cup. Statistically, though, it’s not all that common for the regular season’s best team to take that success and translate it to the playoffs. Since the award was first handed out, only eight of the 30 teams have managed to turn a Presidents’ Trophy into a Stanley Cup.
However, that makes for a historical success rate slightly greater than 25 percent, which is much better than the one-in-16 chance each team has entering the playoffs. Maybe that’s not as high as some feel the success rate for the regular season champion should be, but taking into consideration that each team enters the post-season with much slimmer odds of winning the Stanley Cup, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team that wouldn’t like to see their chance bumped up to one-in-four.
What happens when a team wins the Presidents’ Trophy two seasons in a row, though?
Entering this season, that was a feat only the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks had accomplished. The Oilers, as one might expect, achieved back-to-back titles during Wayne Gretzky’s heyday. The Flames also pulled off the feat at the tail-end of the 1980s. The Stars and Red Wings then combined for four of the five Presidents’ Trophies between 1994-95 and 1998-99, with Detroit capturing a second batch in the mid-aughts. The Canucks, meanwhile, pulled off the feat in 2010-11 and 2011-12, which must feel like the distant past to some in Vancouver.
But Washington has become the sixth franchise in the award’s 31-year history to defend as regular season champions, and now the pressure is on for the Capitals to make good on the promise this group possesses. If history is any indication, though, it could be boom or bust in Washington.
Of the six teams who have won back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies, three have gone on to win the Stanley Cup in the second half of their time atop the league, and that started with the 1986-87 Oilers. The Presidents’ Trophy had been introduced the year prior with the Oilers winning the league by nine points and they captured the league title by six points the following year. After a shocking loss in the second round to Calgary in 1985-86, Edmonton came back with a vengeance in 1986-87, losing two games in the first three rounds of the post-season before escaping with a Game 7 Stanley Cup win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
As soon as the Oilers’ time on top of the league ended, though, the Flames’ began. In 1987-88, Calgary won the first of two-straight Presidents’ Trophies, but the Flames got their comeuppance for ousting the upstart Oilers two years earlier. Meeting the provincial rivals in the second round, Calgary was swept out of the post-season and watched as the Oilers went on to win their second-straight Stanley Cup. The next season, though, Edmonton would get shocked in the first round by the Los Angeles Kings and Calgary would proceed to skate over everyone to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
A similar story would again repeat itself in the late 1990s, as the Stars rose to league dominance starting with a 1997-98 Presidents’ Trophy win, only to see their season end at the hands of the Red Wings in the Western Conference final. The next season out, though, Dallas would again top the regular season standings, make it past the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference final and down the Buffalo Sabres to capture the first, and thus far only, Stanley Cup in franchise history.
It hasn’t always been Cup glory for teams winning back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies, though. The 1995-96 Red Wings were the first team to win consecutive regular season titles and not finish the campaign hoisting the Stanley Cup, but Detroit came awfully close, falling in six games to the eventual champion Colorado Avalanche in the third round. The series would become part of the lore of one of the most heated rivalries in modern hockey history, and despite failing to win a third-straight Presidents’ Trophy, Detroit would get their revenge the following season. In 1996-97, the Red Wings downed the Avalanche in the Western Conference final before sweeping the Flyers for the Stanley cup.
As for the 2005-06 Red Wings and 2011-12 Canucks, well, their trips to the post-season are much more forgettable, though both ended in similar fashion. When the Red Wings entered the playoffs with high hopes after the lockout season, they ran into a red hot Oilers team led by goaltender Dwayne Roloson. The veteran netminder stopped nearly everything that came his way in the opening round as Edmonton shocked the hockey world by defeating Detroit in six games. Likewise, the Canucks ran into the stellar goaltending of Jonathan Quick, dropping out of the playoffs in five games at the hands of the Kings. After appearing in the Stanley Cup final the year prior, Vancouver was out early and they haven’t reached the same heights since.
All told, that makes for three Stanley Cup champions of the six back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winners, but there are also two teams who’ve come up well short with another, the mid-1990s Red Wings, getting ousted at the hands of an equally impressive team.
The biggest difference between the teams who have won consecutive regular season titles and this season’s Capitals, though, is that one could argue Washington’s victories have come at a tougher time than any other in league history. Parity is at an all-time high with the separation between the league’s elite and also-rans razor thin on some nights. Maybe that’s an indicator that this Washington team is like no other that has come before.
It’s impossible to know now how the Capitals will fare in the post-season, but the fact is they’ll face more pressure and higher expectations than any other team fighting for the Stanley Cup. And when it comes to back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winners, those in Washington will be hoping these Capitals land more on the side of boom than bust.
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