When the Washington Capitals finished off the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 6 in the first round of the playoffs last spring, their dressing room was an almost surreal place. With owner Ted Leonsis and some minority owners making their way around the dressing room at the Air Canada Centre, there were backslaps, hugs and lots of pictures. The only thing missing was the Stanley Cup sitting in the middle of the floor and the champagne showers.
Had you not known any better, you’d have thought the Capitals had just won the Stanley Cup, when in reality they had made it through just 25 percent of the NHL’s post-season grind. They took another step Monday night when they finally defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in a playoff series, advancing to the Eastern Conference final for the first time in 20 years. It marked the end of an agonizing drought in the District of Columbia, with no team there having made it to the final four of its league since the Capitals last did so in 1998. Until Tuesday night, Washington was the only city with at least three major sports teams not to qualify for a semifinal in the past 20 years.
Understandably, the Capitals and their fans are giddy about this. Readers of the Washington Post’s website were issued the following instructions: “Evgeny Kuznetsov’s overtime goal: Watch it, listen to it, never forget it.” You’ll have to excuse this version of the Capitals for acting like it has never been here before. That’s because it has never been here before.
So go ahead Capitals and their fans, celebrate by singing Ding Dong the Witch is Dead for the next day or two. But the Capitals are going to have to park that euphoria in a hurry if they have any designs on moving past the Eastern Conference final and fulfilling their destiny as a Stanley Cup champion. This team that has finally accomplished so much has, in the grand scheme of things, accomplished nothing.
If the Capitals were an upstart team full of young talent and future promise, this would be considered a stepping stone. If that were the case, it would be understandable for this team to revel in its accomplishment, only to falter in the conference final. But the most dangerous thing for this team and this fan base to do would be to be satisfied that just because they’ve finally vanquished the Penguins, the job is done and they can all go home happy this summer.
The Capitals are not the oldest team in the NHL, but they have a good number of core players – Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik – who are on the other side of 30. They have an average age of 27.5 years old, which is just slightly older than the average team in that category. But four of the teams that skew younger – the Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes, Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils – are in their division and are considered teams on the rise. The Capitals were just like that once, but they frittered away their prime years wildly underachieving in the playoffs and no longer have the luxury of coming close and hoping to improve the next season. The time is now.
There’s much to suggest the Capitals will continue to be a very good team for the next couple of seasons at least, particularly if they manage to be able to sign defenseman John Carlson to a long-term deal. With the exception of Carlson and Tom Wilson, a pending restricted free agent with arbitration rights – who will be guaranteed to be under contract for at least the next two seasons if he elects to take the team to arbitration – their core players are all under contract for at least the next two seasons.
But the Capitals know better than any team in the league how difficult it is to even get this far. The Eastern Conference final will feature one of the NHL’s biggest and heaviest teams (the Capitals) against one of the smallest and lightest (the Lightning). It will be incumbent upon the Capitals to use that physical mismatch to their advantage without (a) getting caught flat-footed against a faster team and (b) taking advantage of their physicality without getting on the wrong side of the rulebook. And, yes, we’re talking about you, Tom Wilson.
What the Capitals cannot do, and what will be their fatal flaw if they do, is revel in their accomplishment for too long. Yes, they’ve done a very good thing. But they’re going to act like they’ve been there before, even if they haven’t. They’re only halfway through the playoffs, something 27 of the league’s 31 teams have managed to do since they last did it. It’s really not that big a deal and nobody outside the Washington area will remember it if the parade stops here.
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