Groundhog! Da?

The calendar is showing March 11, so we have definitely left February and its rodent-based holidays in the dust. Still, there’s a story playing out in the NHL right now that has certain echoes of everyone’s favorite February-based movie, Groundhog Day.

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It’s the story of the Washington Capitals, of course. The Caps’ perpetual struggle to achieve something in the postseason, after a relative lack of struggle in the regular season, has reached near epic proportions. This year’s runaway winners seem like locks to challenge one of the West’s dynasty teams in the Final, and Alex Ovechkin, in the Bill Murray role, looks sure to finally embrace his Andie McDowell–in the form of a large, engraved silver chalice–after all the misadventures of the past.

Then again, it’s the NHL. And it’s the Capitals. There are no sure things here.

The DFR logo with hockey stick and puck The Capitals themselves must surely know this; most of them have been here before. Ovechkin in particular can not be fooling himself just yet.

Washington has finished in first place six of the last nine years. Two of the other three years they were in second place. Only in one of those years–two seasons ago, 2013-14–did they finish lower in the standings and miss the playoffs. And yet, the Caps never got past the second round of the playoffs in any of those seasons.

 “…the Capitals, no matter how flashy their final points total, will still be confronted with a monumental task just to get to the conference final…”

Ovechkin was around for all of those minor success followed by colossal failures, racking up Hart Trophies and scoring titles along the way. But his playoff performances have been mostly mediocre; Ovechkin hasn’t had a positive plus/minus rating in the postseason since 2009-10. Not that it mattered; whether the Caps’ captain performed spectacularly (2008-09) or wretchedly (2012-13), the result has been the same: an early exit after high expectations.

It’s hardly all Ovechkin’s fault, but there has been a strong correlation between his performance and the team’s, regular season to playoffs. Still, others have played their part. Coaches–Boudreau, Oates, Trotz–have come and gone. So have goalies (Holtby, Theodore, Neuvirth) and skaters (Semin, Green, Backstrom). It’s never mattered. The Capitals, like their townmates in Congress, are in session when they’re in session, but once the body is adjourned–usually around the middle of May, in the skaters’ case–the gavel comes down and the session ends abruptly, and everyone scoots out of town for the summer without looking back.

But this season shall be different…or so goes the chant that has rung out from Washington partisans throughout this winter. The current Capitals are being hailed as the NHL’s answer to the Golden State Warriors. Their present record–49-13-5, 103 points and way the hell out in front of everyone else in the league–recommends them as the equal to the Association’s dominant defending champions. Washington’s nine game winning streak back in December echoes the Dubs’ steamroller style. When teams show themselves to be that much better than the competition, don’t you have to assume they’re going to win it all?

Well, that tends to play out on the hardwood; no league conforms to chalk more than the NBA, where every season the number of contenders is severely restricted and major upsets are almost unheard of, at least over the long haul.

Not so on the ice. President’s Trophy winners routinely go ‘splat’ in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and all an eighth seed needs is a hot goalie to upend the entire bracket. Of course, it also doesn’t help if, like the Capitals, you go into the playoffs with the albatross of past failures tied to your sticks.

It may be tempting to think that, with this season’s record-breaking performance, the Capitals have set themselves above all that. Haven’t they shown by now that this is a different Washington team, one that’s ready to meet the challenge and defeat whatever the postseason throws at them?

Maybe. Then again, when we look at their schedule, whom do we see posting the last three defeats on these Capitals? The Kings, the Rangers, and the Blackhawks. That’s two potential Final opponents, plus the team directly behind the Caps in the standings, who were in the Conference Final last season…after they disposed of Washington along the way. Ouch, babe. There may be, as the saying goes, still a few bugs in the system.

Oh, yeah, and the two teams that currently hold the wild card positions, meaning the Capitals would play one of them in the first round? Pittsburgh and Detroit. If you were the Caps, would you feel comfortable leading off your playoffs going up against the Pens and a reviving Sidney Crosby, who has already won one more cup than Ovechkin has? Or facing the Red Wings, with Datsyuk and Zetterberg and Kronwall stirring memories of past Cups won? Those are exactly the sort of teams that will not simply wilt upon being confronted with the Caps’ gaudy record.

As is fitting for a team based in Washington, the Capitals, no matter how flashy their final points total, will still be confronted with a monumental task just to get to the conference final, let alone reaching that ultimate pinnacle of winning it all. Nothing has been proven yet. Come May, Ovechkin and his teammates may wind up thinking it’s still February, as the same scenario just keeps playing out over and over again–especially if they look down and see the shadows of their own past performances.


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