A week can be a very long time in the NHL.
One week ago today, the Capitals were getting ready for the biggest game in recent franchise history. And it sure looked like they were about to record the biggest win in recent franchise history, as they went into Game 7 against the Penguins with all the momentum. With a win, they’d complete the comeback from down 3-1 in the series and advance to the conference final for the first time in the Alexander Ovechkin era.
We know how that turned out. Now, the Capitals look like a franchise in ruin. They’ve got several paths forwards, and none of them look good. For a team that everyone seemed to have penciled in as favorites, it’s hard to imagine the mood around the team being much worse.
So what happens when a Cup contender has it all go bad?
If there’s any good news to be found for the Capitals, it’s that there’s actually a decent history of NHL teams having miserable postseason exits, only to bounce back and win the Stanley Cup a year or two later. So today, let’s try to cheer up Washington fans with a look back at five Cup contenders who hit rock bottom or something close to it before winning it all, and what those teams could teach the Capitals.
2010 Boston Bruins
What went wrong: Like the current Capitals, the 2009-10 Bruins hadn’t been out of the second round in a long time. It had been 18 years since their last trip to the final four, including a disappointing 2008-09 season in which they came within a point of first overall, then were stunned by the sixth-seeded Hurricanes in Round 2.
But in 2010, things were different. The Bruins beat out the Sabres in the opening round, then took a 3-0 series lead over the Flyers in the second round. But after missing a shot at a sweep by dropping Game 4 in overtime, the Bruins lost Games 5 and 6 as well, forcing a seventh game on home ice. Then they blew a 3-0 lead in that game, completing one of the most stunning collapses in NHL history, becoming (at the time) only the third team to ever lose a series it had led 3-0.
But then: The Bruins traded for Nathan Horton and Greg Campbell in the offseason, and drafted Tyler Seguin with Toronto’s pick. But other than that, they kept the roster largely intact (getting Tim Thomas back to gull health helped). It paid off when they won the Stanley Cup in 2011. Nobody mentions the blown 3-0 lead anymore.
What the Caps can learn: If you’re looking for a case of a team resisting the urge to overreact and being rewarded, the Bruins are a decent choice. Nobody got fired, and none of the top stars were shown the door. And for once, the “stay the course” approach worked.
What went wrong: The 1978-79 seasons marked the fourth straight year in which the Islanders finished with one the five best records in the league. This time, they were the best, period, winning the Presidents’ Trophy with a franchise record 116 points. But in all that time, they’d never been able to get over the hump and into the final.
The 1979 playoffs were supposed to be different. The Islanders swept the Hawks in Round 1, setting up a meeting with a Rangers team that had finished 25 points back of them in the standings. But the Rangers largely shut down the Islanders’ high-octane offense, winning the series in six and leaving fans on Long Island to wonder if their team would ever figure it out in the playoffs.
But then: It’s safe to say they figured it out; after that Rangers loss, the Islanders won their next 19 playoff series, a pro sports record that still stands today. That included four straight Stanley Cups and full-fledged dynasty status.
That was despite taking a step back during the 1980-81 regular season, falling to a pedestrian 91 points. But a late-season move to bring in Butch Goring seemed to spark the team, and is often cited as one of the best trade deadline deals ever.
What the Caps can learn: The lesson here is to stay calm if the team seems to regress next season, although it’s hard to imagine that message actually sinking in for a Washington fan base on edge. Still, the Islanders are another decent “stay the course” story, with a little bit of “load up at the deadline” mixed in.
Of course, there’s also one other Islanders move that’s been largely forgotten: They switched captains in 1979, moving the “C” from Clark Gillies to Denis Potvin. Sorry, Alex.
What went wrong: Feeling the pressure of 52 years without a Stanley Cup and with the defending champion Penguins blocking the way out of the division, the Rangers went all-in on the 1991-92 season. They traded for Mark Messier days into the season, making it clear that it was championship or bust.
And during the season, it worked. The Rangers recorded 105 points to finish in first place overall for the first time in 50 years. After squeaking past the Devils in seven games – part of that wild night with four simultaneous Game 7s we mentioned last week – the Rangers got the matchup they wanted: the Penguins.
But despite finishing 18 points ahead of the Penguins in the standings, and knocking Mario Lemieux out of the series early on, the Rangers couldn’t handle the champs. The Penguins won the last three games of the series to finish New York in six. And to make matters even worse, the Rangers missed the playoffs entirely the following season.
But then: That playoff miss cost Roger Nielson his job, and the team hired Mike Keenan prior to the 1993-94 season as his replacement. Combined with the addition of Alexie Kovalev and Sergei Zubov the year before, the move pushed the Rangers to another Presidents Trophy. And this time, they finished the job, finally snapping their Cup drought in 1994.
What the Caps can learn: Hmm… the Presidents Trophy winners with a long Cup drought lose to the defending champion Penguins despite Pittsburgh’s best player getting hurt? This one might hit a little too close to home. Especially for Barry Trotz, who apparently needs to go for this all to work.
What went wrong: The 1997-98 season marked the second straight in which the Stars were among the very best teams in the league. They’d finished second overall the previous season, then followed that up with their first Presidents’ Trophy.
But both seasons ended badly. In 1997, they’d been stunned by the Oilers in one of the more dramatic first round upsets in recent history. And in 1998 they ran into the defending champion Red Wings, bowing out in six games. They’d finished the season third overall in goal-scoring but were shut out twice in the Detroit series, including in the clincher.
But then: The Stars had already signed Ed Belfour as a free agent in 1997, and in 1998 they went back to the market to snag Brett Hull. He scored 32 goals, the Stars won a second straight Presidents’ Trophy, and this time they finished the job in the postseason by winning the Stanley Cup.
What the Caps can learn: Feel free to ignore any replay review rules. (I kid, Sabres fans, I kid.)
The Stars’ big move was the Hull signing, and that doesn’t really help the Caps since this year’s biggest UFA, Kevin Shattenkirk, will be leaving instead of arriving. So maybe the lesson is simpler: Sometimes, you finish first overall but have the bad luck of running into the defending Stanley Cup champs in the playoffs, and you just have to live with it.
Oh hey, speaking of those Red Wings…
1996 Red Wings
What went wrong: Facing a Cup drought that had stretched past four decades, the Red Wings seemed to have finally cracked the code when they headed into the 1995 final as heavy favorites. Instead, they were swept by the Devils. They responded with one of the best regular seasons in NHL history, and after racking up a ridiculous 131 points, the Wings eliminated the Jets and Blues and seemed headed to another Cup final.
Standing in their way: The Colorado Avalanche. That matchup didn’t mean much, but it would soon, as Claude Lemieux’s hit on Kris Draper launched the best rivalry of the modern era. The Avalanche won the series in six, lending credence to a growing theory that some sort of fundamental flaw was keeping the Red Wings from a title.
But then: Early in the 1996-97 season, the Red Wings pulled off a blockbuster, trading Paul Coffey and Keith Primeau for Brendan Shanahan. That seemed to be the missing piece, and the team went on to win two straight Cups, then added two more in the decade to come.
What the Caps can learn: The parallels between the current Caps and Wings go deeper than just a string of disappointing playoff losses. Like Washington, there was a certain segment of Detroit fans who were convinced that the captain needed to go. That was Steve Yzerman, and as crazy as it sounds today, at one point the rumor was that Detroit would move him for Alexei Yashin. Obviously, the deal never happened; instead, the Wings brought in reinforcements.
We live in a salary cap world now, so it’s not like the Capitals can just go out and pluck a future Hall of Famer like Shanahan off some struggling franchise. But it’s at least possible that some day, trading Ovechkin to shake things up will sound just as silly as Yzerman-for-Yashin.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008; you may know him from Twitter as @downgoesbrown. His e-book, The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History, is available now. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.