It’s happening again. We’ve reached the end of January, and the Washington Capitals are the best team in the NHL. As a Caps fan, I should be ecstatic.
The Capitals are not only good — they’re also getting better. After a relatively slow start, Washington tore through the past month with a 13–2–2 record, scoring five or more goals in seven of its last nine games before the All-Star break. Led by Alexander Ovechkin’s 23 goals, the Caps have a league-best goal differential of plus-54. They have scoring depth across all four offensive lines, and they’re stingy in the back, too: Washington has allowed two or fewer goals in 32 out of 49 games this season, and goalie Braden Holtby has a league-leading six shutouts. A recent NHL coaches poll has the Caps as favorites to make the Stanley Cup.
Oh, you want analytics? Well, the Capitals are crushing those, too. You don’t have to be an expert on PDO (defined here, for the interested) to identify which team is the outlier on this chart. And, according to a fancy-stats predictor (based on shot suppression, shot generation, and goaltending), Washington is the team most likely to make a deep playoff run.
But these are the Capitals, for whom every regular season resembles the heady days of a promising startup before the venture funding runs out, the IPO goes bust, and everything suddenly turns to shit. Last year on this exact date, the Caps were far and away the best team in the NHL, with an identical plus-54 goal differential. They would eventually win the Presidents’ Trophy, awarded for the league’s top regular-season record, for the second time in seven years. But, like the 2009–10 squad and every other Capitals team since 1998, the 2015–16 Caps couldn’t even get halfway to a Stanley Cup, crashing out in the second round of the playoffs. (Predictably, they fell to perennial nemesis Pittsburgh, eventual Cup champ.)
This year’s Capitals are on pace to win another Presidents’ Trophy, and offseason roster additions (forwards Lars Eller and Brett Connolly) have made the team even stronger than last season’s juggernaut. Top to bottom, this is the best Washington Capitals team I’ve ever seen.
Thus, I am terrified.
I’m usually not one to partake in “how deep is your fandom” pissing contests, but I feel obliged here to lay down my Caps credentials.
The franchise is only three years older than I am; I’ve been rooting for the team for three full decades. I watched the Easter Epic on TV (well, at least until bedtime), my first sports-related heartbreak; saw the biggest goal in franchise history standing next to my father at the raucous Capital Centre; spent long childhood nights staring at this wall poster; grew up listening to Ron Weber, “Smokin’” Al Koken, and Jeff Rimer; secretly cheered Dale Hunter’s attempted maiming of Pierre Turgeon; and even was an annual attendee at Capitals summer hockey schools (proof!), where I was the coach’s pet of team legend Yvon Labre.
There was a period when my fandom waned a bit, as many youthful obsessions do once you leave for college. The month after I graduated, the Caps miraculously made it to their first (and only) Stanley Cup finals, where they were unceremoniously swept by the Red Wings. Soon after came the Jaromir Jagr debacle (2001–2004), followed by the full-season NHL lockout of 2004–05. My love of hockey was teetering. And then came Alexander Ovechkin.
Ovechkin’s arrival sparked a real hockey renaissance in Washington — Ovi was not only a no. 1 overall pick with seat-filling talent, but he also had the lovable personality to be the gap-toothed face of the franchise, and even the entire city. As the Caps rebuilt around Ovechkin with other high draft picks, future Stanley Cups in D.C. no longer seemed like a matter of “if,” but “when.”
But — these are the Capitals. In the 11 seasons since Ovi’s rookie year, the Caps have gone through multiple identity changes, from the high-flying offensive dream team under Bruce Boudreau to the shot-blocking slogs of the Dale Hunter/Adam Oates regimes. The constant, besides Ovi racking up goal-scoring titles, has been bitter playoff disappointments.
In the Ovechkin era, the Caps have made the postseason eight times. In that span, they’ve won a total of five first-round series, never advancing past the second round. Those playoff failures include six(!) Game 7 losses — each its own unforgettable bloody crime scene — including four on home ice. The Caps have underperformed in the playoffs for practically my entire lifetime, but it’s never been more devastating than it has been in Ovechkin’s prime. As a fan, I want to bask in the vicarious glory of a championship. Even more than that, I want Ovi to experience lifting that Cup.
One might think I’d be emboldened by the recent triumphs of the Cubs, or the Cavs, or even Leicester City. But the Capitals are a unique case, without the uplifting history of being lovable losers, or objects of nationwide pity, or one-in-a-million underdogs. No, the Caps are lifelong middle managers: always just competent enough to narrowly fail.
Famous last words: Maybe this is our year. I’ve already run through the numbers that declare the Caps’ superiority so far this season, but my eye test isn’t lying, either. I’ve watched the Capitals dismiss contenders and cellar dwellers with equal aplomb, winning both high-scoring blowouts and close defensive battles. Their coach, Barry Trotz, is a mensch. When the team is healthy, there are no apparent weaknesses.
Unlike last year, the Caps will probably need to play hard until the end of the regular season to preserve their hold on the top seed. That’s the gift part of being in the Metropolitan, the NHL’s strongest division; the curse is that the league’s divisional playoff system means that the Caps will likely have to beat the Rangers and/or Penguins (shudder) just to get to the conference finals.
Should the Caps fail to advance past the second round this spring? Don’t think I haven’t considered the possibility. Imagine with me: By the summer, Ovechkin will become hockey’s version of Carmelo Anthony, enduring the trade rumors that are the inglorious fate of a fading superstar. The Caps’ window of Stanley Cup contention will begin looking like the slit of a solitary-confinement cell. Next October, the organization will somehow have to convince us that all of this is worth going through again.
And should the Caps win it all this June? Oh, I’ve imagined that, too, in vivid detail. I read an article recently in The New York Times about sports fanatics who, upon reaching middle age, begin asking themselves existential questions about their fandom. After a victory by his favorite team left him feeling detached and numb, one of them wondered: Is this really what makes me happy? I’ve asked myself that very question, in regard to my beloved Caps.
Sadly, inevitably — the answer remains yes.