The 2017-18 Washington Capitals cemented Alex Ovechkin’s status as an all-time great, removing the final question mark from his indelible resume and crowning him and the Caps as NHL champions. Brock McGinn, Justin Williams, and the Carolina Hurricanes sniped the Caps’ chances of a repeat, but the Caps’ have an opportunity ahead of them to recapture some of that missing magic.
The further we get from the Caps’ title run, the harder it becomes to build on the legacy of that squad, making the upcoming 2020 Playoffs one of the last/best opportunities to make this era of Capitals’ hockey more than a footnote in the NHL cannon.
Strength in Numbers
From a historical standpoint, the NHL is uniquely positioned to handle the complexities of the 2020 Playoffs. Baseball won’t know what to do with a 60-game season in the deep cannon of 162-game seasons, and basketball’s lack of parity could give way to an also-ran stealing a Finals appearance as the 8th-seeded New York Knicks did in their strike-shortened 1999 season.
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When the Chicago Blackhawks won the 2012-13 Stanley Cup after the strike-shortened 48-game season, there was no asterisk beside their victory. Had that been the season the Capitals broke through, however, it might be viewed in a different light. The Blackhawks championship in 2010 helped legitimize their win in 2013 (as did their win two years later in 2015). A single Cup cements a team’s legacy, but a run – winning multiple Cups in a short window – can empower a franchise with decades of goodwill.
“…the Caps did it again, and then again. Indeed, in recent years, being a D.C. sports fan required a measure of delusion—and perhaps some therapy. No more.”– Tarik El Bashir of NBC Sports on the Caps’ repeated postseason disappointments prior to their 2018 Stanley Cup.
This season brings an even more unusual set of circumstances. If Connor McDavid wins his first Cup, or Auston Matthews, it will be easy to wonder if they weren’t aided by the bizarre circumstances of the pandemic. That’s not to say it won’t be earned – just that it might not be viewed in the exact same light as a typical Stanley Cup title. In life – who cares – but in sports, comparisons matter.
But for a handful of teams, a win this season will only add to the legacy cupboard. There will be no hesitancy to crown Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins as the champs should they survive this year’s gauntlet. Nor will we bat an eye if the St. Louis Blues repeat.
The Boston Bruins have enough sustained success over the past decade, coupled with their Stanley Cup Final appearance last season, that a win this season will only add to the Hall-of-Fame cases for Tuukka Rask, Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand. Even if the Blackhawks break through – when no one counts them among the league’s best teams – there will be an element of magical realism crowned atop the conjoined legacies of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
The Capitals’ Legacy of Failure
The Capitals have set the tone for sports in the nation’s capital time and time again – first in the negative sense, but more recently as champions. When you type “Washington Capitals legacy” into Google, “of failure” auto-populates to finish the phrase.
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That tells you everything you need to know about the history of Caps hockey. But fresh off the Washington Nationals’ World Series win, the Capitals have a chance to prove that they’re the tastemakers in this town.
Just one year removed from their 2018 Cup win, count the Capitals among the small handful of teams who can win this season and add to their legacy without hesitation. This era of Capitals hockey will always be synonymous with Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and John Carlson, but the team is still considered to be largely a disappointment even after breaking through. A second title changes that – no matter the circumstances.