On Saturday night I enjoyed another fun and keenly sharp analysis session in the studio of Federal News Radio, for ‘Saturday Night Caps,’ alongside Jonathon Warner, Brian McNally, Dmitry Chesnokov, Ben Raby, and Lisa Hillary. Greg Wyshynski called in from his northern Virginia home. Greg’s brain on pucks is a great one, but he suggested that there was, if not an asterisk by all the Caps’ winning this season, certainly a stipulation that by virtue of being in the East, and most especially the Southeast, winning was a whole lot easier for the hockey team in the nation’s capital. I wasn’t buying it.
One hundred and twenty points is beyond special. The Capitals this past weekend became the first non Original Six club to pull it off. That’s pretty special company. One hundred and twenty points is more than 100 wins in baseball, or 12 Ws in the NFL, I think. It’s closest I think to 60 or even 65 wins in the NBA.
It seems to me that if we are in an Era of Parity there can be no such thing as an “easy” route to 120 points.
Toronto was the worst team in the East this season at 30-38-14, good for 74 points. The Caps managed to lose to the Leafs twice. Edmonton had just 62 points out West.
Seven Western conference teams had 100 or more points this season while just four did in the East. There were a lot of quality hockey clubs out West, again. I think.
Of the last 10 Stanley Cups awarded, five have been handed off to clubs from the West, five to the East. The San Jose Sharks have earned 100 or more points in each of the past four seasons. Indisputably a quality club, right? And yet they’ve failed to advance past the Western conference semifinals. Ever.
So: how good have they really been?
It’s an interesting question. The Capitals had “good” — really good, actually — clubs in the 1980s NHL. Or did they? They never advanced out of the Patrick division playoffs that decade. They did for the first time in 1990. They never really had anything close to an elite goaltender on all those teams. So were they “good” or not?
Greg wasn’t claiming that the Caps weren’t good, mind you — he believes they are, and he stated on the air Saturday night that he believed that the Caps would make it to the Stanley Cup finals this June. But my point to Greg, inartfully articulated I’m sure, was that much ado is made of this East versus West analysis. The Caps were 10-5-2 versus the West this season. That probably isn’t a significant enough sampling to speculate as to how they’d have fared out West points-wise over the course of a full season. Maybe they’d get 108, maybe closer to 120.
But that’s not going to happen anyway, and you play the schedule made for you, and the Caps did it historically well. In an Era of Parity. That’s what matters.
The Carolina Hurricanes were a non-playoff club this hockey season, but they were hardly a doormat. The Caps split their six games with the Canes this season, never winning by more than one goal and enduring one of their worst losses of the season at home to Carolina (6-3 on December 28). The quality and caliber of an opponent isn’t measured exclusively by points or standings position. When Montreal plays Toronto it’s usually a pretty good game.
Greg is a bit younger than I am (!), but he probably still remembers the old Norris division. From its inception in 1974 through 1979 the Norris was comprised of Montreal, the Wings, the LA Kings, the Pens (godawful) and the Caps (godawful). In 1976-77 Montreal won the Norris by 49 points en route to an astounding 60-8-12 record. A historically elite hockey club, no? But it didn’t hurt the Habs having the Wings (16-55-9) or the Caps (24-42-14) lodged with them.
By the turn of the decade the Norris would resemble the NFC Central geographically but still house mediocre-to-also-ran clubs: the Minnesota North Stars, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the very stinky Wings, the often mediocre St. Louis Blues, and mediocre and occasionally good Chicago Blackhawks. My point is that in this just completed hockey season, in an era of comparative parity, the Washington Capitals didn’t feast on wretched hockey clubs. There were no California Golden Seals or Kansas City Scouts for the Caps to kill.
This was a historically strong season for the Washington Capitals, their wins and points earned in competitive games night after night. Set against the legacy of this league’s overall competitive balance, dating back decades, that’s special all right.