Sidney Crosby had a telling, very accurate quote in the second round. With his Penguins finally on the wrong side of a series against the Capitals, staring down elimination, Crosby was asked what was different about this year’s Capitals team.
“I thought they were pretty relentless the last couple years, too,” Crosby told The Washington Post. “The games are separated by one goal here, mistake here, mistake there. I didn’t see them give in before. That’s an easy storyline because we ended up winning.”
The only irony in Crosby’s words is that this version of the Capitals is perhaps the fourth- or fifth-best in the Alex Ovechkin era. That reveals another truth, one that underscored Crosby’s point: You have to have a very good team to win the Stanley Cup, but not necessarily the best team. And it’s the cruel reality that has claimed a few of the top dogs in hockey this season, and the Capitals and many others in years past.
It was just a year ago the Capitals were ostensibly “all-in” after acquiring All-Star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline, mortgaging future assets.
But then came another second-round defeat at the hands of Pittsburgh, and what was arguably the best team Ovechkin had ever played for was left asking what if?
In the months after that defeat, the Capitals lost Shattenkirk to free agency, shipped away other skill players because of salary cap constraints, and earned 13 fewer points in the standings, and their lowest total since 2015. Braden Holtby struggled, T.J. Oshie’s shooting percentage bender came to an end, and Washington dropped the first two games of the 2018 playoffs (at home!) against the Blue Jackets.
And yet, this is the Capitals team that has been, based on how teams are judged to be successful, the most successful of this era.
This is the cruel reality of hockey, and sports. In an inherently small sample that is the playoffs, the checks and balances of an 82-game regular season schedule can be thrown out the window. A team can carry a play at 5-on-5, but run into a hot goaltender (see: Capitals vs. Lighting, Games 3-5). Good teams can beat great teams because an entire line or goaltender plays on a different level (see: the Golden Knights).
Take nothing away from the teams that are winning and the players responsible for that success. It also serves as little consolation for the fans of the teams on the wrong side of a seven-game series.
The Predators and Jets were, at worst, two of the top three teams in the NHL this season. They played each other in the second round, where one of those teams had to be eliminated. Seven games later, it was Nashville. To be a top-two team in the league only to be eliminated in the second round is a disappointing script, and yet, Nashville or Winnipeg had no way of escaping that (and, on a conference level, Tampa Bay and Boston were in the same boat).
Fast forward a round, and the Jets, like every human being on the planet, went into Las Vegas, and got beat by the house. The hotter-than-the-Sun player is Marc-Andre Fleury, who has a .947 save percentage in the playoffs, went .938 in the West finals and has saved 17(!) goals above a replacement level player in the postseason. Considering Vegas has nine one-goal wins in this magical postseason run, to say Fleury isn’t largely responsible for this run is shortsighted.
— Jeremy Crowe (@307x) May 21, 2018
And there’s nothing wrong with that, nor should Fleury get any less of the credit. He’s been marvelous, far above a level we’ve ever seen him play, but that doesn’t make him lucky, per say. Any hot streak is philosophically a small, unsustainable stretch. But that doesn’t make the Jets or the Predators a fatally flawed team, just like the Ovechkin teams that couldn’t get over the hump and likewise didn’t have a reason to tear things down.
Add in that Vegas is in its inaugural, expansion season, and it can make things even more frustrating for onlookers. But to dig much deeper is to try to defy one of the tenants of sport: You not only need to be good, but need to be circumstantially good. And sometimes, anything less than that isn’t enough.
Unfortunately that will in no way shape public opinion should the Capitals fall short in a Game 7 once again. Consider that outlined path of how Washington got to this point, juxtaposed to the all the times they came up short in the past. And then consider how thoroughly they outplayed the Lightning for long stretches of this series, only to need perhaps one of their best player performances with this core to stave off elimination in Game 6.
But again, nothing about this has to be fair, and that’s why it can be especially frustrating. In Games 3-6 of these Eastern Conference finals, the Capitals outshot the Lightning 106-65 and had a 53.49 percent share in puck possession. All they had to show for those 180 minutes was three losses.
Because in that same stretch of games, Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 100 of those 106 shots, and inarguably the better team did not win. Results do not always reflect process, but it’s a results-oriented business, which is why the failures of the Jets and Predators (and in previous seasons, the Capitals) all get viewed under the same scope.
In reality, there’s nuance to losing. Teams that best identify and rationally approach that losing come out better on the other end. Two years ago, after a second-round loss to the Penguins, the Capitals chose not to augment their roster that offseaon, and followed a 120-point season by torching the NHL once again with 118.
Both of those Washington clubs ran into the Penguins, though, a victim of elite talent, divisional and playoff format — and a Game 7 loss in 2017.
If the Capitals lose to the Lightning Wednesday night, it might not be because they were the worse team that night, or the worse team in the series. It wouldn’t be the first time in these playoffs the better side was sent home packing, and not the first time this Capitals club has come out on the wrong side of a series.
But like Crosby alluded to, it’s what will inform the storyline, and what will shape opinions about the Capitals (and the Lightning) in the aftermath of the series.
As cruel as that may be.