History is written by the victors, a cruel fact known best by the losers. Only one team can win a championship each year, which, in hockey, leaves the other 29 teams without the Cup. Sure, regular season success is nice, but it basically means nothing if you do not win in the playoffs. Even in the playoffs, 16 teams enter, yet only one will raise the Stanley Cup. Following these statistically almost inevitable losses, the narrative of underachieving heightens each offseason, especially when a team consistently loses in the playoffs. The Washington Capitals are the poster child of the perpetual playoff underachiever. The franchise has failed to make the Stanley Cup Finals during the Alexander Ovechkin era and have never won a Stanley Cup in its 42 year history. Despite nine straight winning seasons and having the best regular season team in hockey this year, the Capitals are once again on the brink of playoff extinction and adding to their reputation of underachievement.
The Capitals need to win tonight in Pittsburgh then again back in DC in Game 7 on Thursday to avoid elimination. Better than most teams, the Capitals know that it is possible to come back from a 3-1 playoff deficit, which they faced before winning in Game 5 last weekend. Just last season, the Capitals were up 3-1 on the New York Rangers, but proceeded to lose games 5, 6, and 7 and were sent home. The skepticism around this team is not their ability to comeback from a deficit, but rather is their history of playoff failures, especially to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins have eliminated the Capitals five times since 1995. The Capitals have not won a series against Pittsburgh once in that time frame. This Capitals team has a chance to rewrite their history, and what better way than by coming back from a 3-1 series deficit against their own kryptonite, the Penguins. Take a quick look back at each of those previous meetings:
1995 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Penguins win the series 4-3. The Capitals were up 3-1 in the series, but lost games 5, 6, and 7 to be sent home. The Penguins lost in the next round.
1996 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Penguins win the series 4-2. The Capitals lost all three games played on their home ice in Washington. The Penguins lost in the Conference Finals.
2000 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Penguins win the series 4-1. The Capitals avoided a sweep in Game 4 with a win, before being closed out in Game 5. The Penguins lost in the next round.
2001 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Penguins win the series 4-2. The Capitals lose Game 6 in Overtime in Pittsburgh to end their season. The Penguins lost in the Conference Finals.
2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Penguins win the series 4-3. The first playoff meeting between Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby did not disappoint. They had 14 and 13 points respectively in the series, but only one team could advance. The Penguins went on to win Stanley Cup that season, Crosby’s lone championship.
This season, not only did the Capitals win the Presidents Trophy for the best regular season team in hockey, they had one of the best regular seasons in NHL history. Ironically, the Capitals also won the Presidents Trophy in the 2008-2009 season as well, before losing to the eventual champion Penguins in the playoffs. The 2009 playoff team is remembered as a disappointment. The best regular season team in hockey, but nothing more. The team that should have won the Stanley Cup. This year’s team will share the same label if they do not win the next two games.
However, this recent rivalry could very well be the key to the Capitals getting the monkey off their back and shedding those playoff demons once and for all. The Penguins’ playoff matchups have been a microcosm of the Capitals’ playoff woes, and an uncharacteristic comeback could be the mental breakthrough this team needs to put all doubt out of their minds on their path to the Stanley Cup.
History means everything and nothing to this Capitals team. It will be an easy narrative that the metaphorical weight of their playoff shortcomings will derail the Capitals once again. On the other hand, should history matter for this team? History unfairly skews the losers, but it does not have to be that way this year. They have two games to keep their hopes alive, plain and simple. Once the puck is dropped, they just need to focus on the task in front of them. History might have an eye on these games, but their only opponent is the Penguins.
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Justin K. Alier