Hockey, like many other sports, is a game of momentum. Not just from minute to minute or from game to game, but also season to season. Teams get good, they stay good, they get bad again. In the world of sports, it’s the circle of life. For the Washington Capitals, that momentum has been all but lost.
Consider the Capitals from a few years ago: they were the up-and-comers with an NHL superstar leading them. In the 2007-08 season, they lost in the conference quarterfinals three games to four. The year after, they lost in the conference semifinals three games to four. Despite not having raised the Cup, momentum was building for Washington.
Then, in the 2009-10 season, having finished with the best record in the NHL, the Capitals bowed out again in the conference quarterfinals, three games to four, to the Canadiens. Last year, in case you forgot, they got bounced zero games to four in the conference semifinals.
My point in taking you down memory lane is to illustrate to you the curve in momentum. A few years ago, it was rising. Now it is declining. And after last night’s 5-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, you wonder how close to rock bottom the momentum in Washington actually is.
There is no set time limit for how long a team can stay a contender in the NHL before having to rebuild. But in an age with a salary cap, an increased awareness towards injuries, and an ever-shortening shelf life on youth, I think one can say definitively it is not that long.
Instead of setting an exact time on it, one should look for warning signs. Warning signs like kneejerk reactions (see “firing Bruce Boudreau”). Warning signs like a downturn in stats (see “Alex Ovechkin’s point totals”). You don’t know when the smoking gun will appear, but when it does you have a finite amount of time to actually win the Stanley Cup.
Washington headed out on this latest road trip needing to prove that they could turn this season, and their momentum, around. No one has doubted Washington’s ability to win inside the Verizon Center, it is on the road that they have struggled to rack up the 2-point games (9-15-3 at the start of this recent block of away games). After beating the 27-20-11 Panthers, the Capitals have now dropped two straight including a five-point loss to the conference’s worst team. Like I said, momentum.
Based on seasons past and the way the standings usually pan out, the Capitals realistically need to rack up a total of at least 94 to 96 points in order to make the playoffs. This means Washington will likely now have to go 15-6-1 in their remaining 22 games just to get a shot at the Stanley Cup. For a team the NHL has grown accustomed to labeling “perennial contenders”, the Capitals sure are on the outside looking in.
The beauty of momentum, however, is that it can shift without warning. One minute you’re down and out, the next you’re headed towards the top. For the Capitals, make no mistake, they have the tools needed to shift that momentum.
If you want to highlight one reason Washington has struggled thus far this season it probably is their habit of playing up and down to teams. Just look at these last three games, for example. Having played a trio of Southeast division rivals, the Capitals beat the division leader then lost to the bottom two teams. They can win and lose to any team in the league. Unfortunately for them, however, inconsistency is a rare attribute in a Stanley Cup champion.
The Ottawa Senators, the team Washington plays tomorrow night, are the exact opposite of inconsistency. At 31-22-8 through 61 games, the Senators are 15-11-3 at home and 16-11-5 on the road. They are 4-4-2 in their last ten games but are riding a three-game win streak. Consistent.
I guess the key point here is that, for Washington, time is running out. As in, it has not yet run out. These Capitals, as I have already said, have enough talent on the roster to turn this season around. If they can get up to that mid-90’s tier in terms of points and make the playoffs it will practically become a whole new season for them. But if Washington can’t make the playoffs and finds them self at home on the couch for the postseason, this era of Stanley Cup contention may be over in Washington for the foreseeable future.