The Washington Capitals enter their game tonight against the Montreal Canadiens with the most points in the NHL and the only team in the league with a points percentage over .700. So, obviously, if this keeps up, they’ll finish first overall and win the Presidents’ Trophy. It’s not uncommon territory for them. If they do finish first, it will be the fourth time in 11 years.
But here’s the thing. Every time the Capitals finish atop the league in the regular season, disaster in the playoffs ensues. With one first-round ouster to the Montreal Canadiens and two second-round defeats at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Capitals have been the poster boys for the Presidents’ Trophy curse. Never mind that the team that finishes first overall goes on to win the Cup about 25 percent of the time, which is a higher rate of success than any other placing. When the Capitals won their only Stanley Cup in 2017-18, they did so after finishing sixth overall.
And then there was the spectacular flameout by the Tampa Bay Lightning last season. It makes you wonder whether there’s any point in chasing first place overall. But then again, teams just can’t turn these things on and off. If you let up down the stretch, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to snap your fingers and start being a dominant team again. So the Capitals intend to just keep on doing what they’ve been doing so far this season. This is a confident group that has won before. So any similarities between this team and the one that won the Presidents’ Trophy in the past are purely coincidental.
“We have a competitive group of guys who want to win,” said Capitals coach Todd Reirden. “When you have a good team, you always expect to win. Every Presidents’ Trophy I’ve been involved with, whether it’s with Pittsburgh or my time in St. Louis as a player, I don’t think it’s a curse. It’s a byproduct of playing well and hopefully you’re team is heading into the playoffs with that thought in mind.”
In reality, if you went to someone before the playoffs began and gave him the choice of betting on the Presidents’ Trophy winner or the field, that person would probably take the field every time. The Stanley Cup is the most difficult trophy to win in sports and everything has to fall into place at precisely the right time. The Capitals are all too familiar with that storyline from both sides now.
“As we’ve seen in the playoffs before it’s been teams getting hot and goalies getting hot and breaks going your way,” Reirden said. “You need everything to line up to pull this thing off. It’s extremely competitive and it’s even competitive in our division. We had a pretty amazing start and we’re not that far ahead by any stretch. I’m getting ready to play in some competitive games down the stretch and get ourselves for what I hope to be a long playoff run.”
Defenseman John Carlson was around for every one of those Presidents’ Trophy teams that lost in the playoffs and for the one that one in the Stanley Cup and he knows what a fine line there is between winning and losing in the playoffs. But the solution is definitely not to let up late in the season. “When you finish first overall it says you have a good team,” he said. “As long as you’re dialing yourself up for every game, you can live with fighting the puck or things not going your way if your mentality is pedal to the metal. Usually if you’re a good team and you’re going pedal to the metal, you’re going to be pretty good regardless.”
One thing the Capitals will have to work out down the stretch is their goaltending situation. Ilya Samsonov has been one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, but the sample size needs to be bigger. But there is little doubt that he stops pucks (.927 save percentage) and wins games (15 wins in just 16 starts). But we all know what happened in 2017 when Phillip Grubauer took the crease and faltered in the playoffs, only to have Holtby come in and lead the Capitals to the Cup.
“We’re still learning what we have with Ilya,” Reirden said. “You have to have a well thought-out plan, especially with rookies. We’ve set him up for success in certain situations, but that being said, I can tell you the last six or seven starts I’ve given him haven’t been easy ones. We used him for the first time in consecutive games and I continue to challenge him with teams we had struggled against early on. I continue to put little challenges ahead of him and see what he does with it.”
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