“Hockey is hard. If it were easy, everyone would win a Cup. Twenty-nine teams lose every year.”
I wrote those words from Bradenton, Florida on May 6, 2011, 24 hours after the Lightning completed their four-game sweep of the Washington Capitals in the playoffs last spring, ending the Caps season in disappointing fashion. Those words above were meant to convey solace at the time, being unceremoniously dumped from the playoffs again. But these days, maybe everyone needs a reminder about the seriousness of this game.
Being almost a year removed doesn’t make it any easier if you’re a Caps fan. Last year ended the same way every other season has in the franchise’s 38-year history: with no Stanley Cup.
We thought this season would be different, but it has brought a different kind of misery. Instead of waiting until the playoffs to break our hearts, the disappointment is coming early, before the spring flowers bloom. There’s time yet that the Caps could salvage the season and sneak into the playoffs — they’re still only four points back of Winnipeg for first in the division (with three games in hand) and three points behind Florida for the final seed.
But at the rate the Capitals are piling up losses, it will take a major turn-around to qualify.
I think about all the people the last couple of seasons that have said the Caps should be judged not on the regular season, but on their success in the playoffs. Like it was some kind of given, like the playoffs for this team was pre-ordained. NOTHING is given in hockey, especially not in the NHL. You have to earn every single thing you get.
Yet, there were fans, media, players; heck, even the owner said it. This team will be judged on what they do in the playoffs.
You have to get there first.
There’s been a sense of entitlement in “America’s Hockey Capital” since the ascension of Alex Ovechkin and that first season where Bruce Boudreau replaced Glen Hanlon and took that team, probably not ready yet, on an improbable run to the playoffs. Since then, fans have flocked to Verizon Center to “Rock the Red”, expecting a win every time they entered the building. Why not? The Caps were the fastest, most exciting team in the league.
Ovie celebrated his goals by slamming into the glass in a corner, or warming his hands over his stick of fire. Hockey was fun. Easy.
They took the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins to seven games in the second round, on the cusp themselves of greatness.
But something changed between then and today. Wins became commonplace. Taken for granted. Given.
The regular season meant nothing.
And you know what happened? The Capitals started to play like that was true.
Gone was the excitement, the rush of adrenaline, the emotion, the pure joy. Gone are the goal celebrations. The regular season became something to tolerate. Last season, the doldrums came in December, after a trade shook up the room. The losses mounted and the team was embarrassed during a lengthy losing streak in front of the HBO cameras. The Caps managed to hype themselves up for the Penguins in the Winter Classic, then plodded through the end of the season, only to bow out to a team that was built in their previous image.
The off-season brought moves to add a more veteran presence to a still-young core. But now the veterans look old and the youngsters haven’t stepped up.
They’ve already dismissed one coach, who allowed the Canadian media to dictate how he should coach his own team. He’s now found new life out west, out of the spotlight, teaching his old system to a new team that is excelling. The Caps brought in one of the most storied players in franchise history to take over, coercing him from the Juniors team he owns, presumably to add an air of gravitas to the situation. Things have only further muddled, as scoring chances have gone down and veteran players have been benched for having a bad plus-minus and taking a bad penalty, while the coach readily admits it in the media.
The Capitals find themselves on the outside looking in with just a couple of days before the trade deadline, yet have lost their last three games (by a combined 12-3) and nine of their last 13. They have trailed 2-0 in five of their last six games. After the latest two losses, one of their best players admitted, “The last two games, we weren’t ready to play,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We weren’t prepared mentally.”
Even on the brink of disaster, the regular season means nothing.
Earlier this season, the Caps were openly ridiculed for hanging banners announcing their “Eastern Conference Regular Season” Championship. Most fans thought banners should be reserved for the Stanley Cup; that regular season victories don’t mean anything. That this team should only celebrate by winning in the playoffs.
You have to get there first.
Every game matters. It’s obvious to everyone when you don’t believe that to be the case.
Hockey is hard. If it were easy, everyone would win a Cup.
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.