The Caps, as all Caps fans know, changed coaches in late November, swapping out Bruce Boudreau for Dale Hunter. And immediately, thoughts turned to another coaching change made in mid-season not too long ago. The Pittsburgh Penguins relieved Michel Therrien in mid-season during the 2008-2009 campaign in favor of Dan Bylsma, won just about every game they played thereafter in the regular season, then went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Folks might have thought this would be the way it would go for the Caps. Well, not so fast. The Caps under Hunter are a middling 5-6-1 and going nowhere in a big hurry in the Eastern Conference of the NHL. So much for that comparison, at least so far.
But perhaps it is a case of "right state, wrong city" when it comes to comparisons. Forward to the 2009-2010 season. Another team got off to a good start, winning their first three games (the Caps won their first seven this season), then puttered around the .500 mark for the next 20 games or so. The team's management saw enough to know that a change was needed behind the bench and brought in a coach that had no experience in his new team's organization.
It took a while for the new coach and his new team to get on the same page. He and his team were pasted in their first outing together, taking an 8-2 drubbing at the hands of the Capitals. The team was 2-7-1 under their new coach and looked ugly doing it, failing to score more than two goals in any of their eight losses under the new regime.
But the coach and his players found the same page, got their skates under them, and won the last four games of the 2009 portion of the season, averaging more than four goals a game in doing so. It was a team that wouldn't rocket to the top of the standings in the 2010 portion of the season, though. In fact, they went only 22-17-4 after the calendar turned over and played to an under .500 record over their last 20 games (8-9-3).
It was a team that made the playoffs by the thinest of margins -- by winning a shootout in their 82nd game against the team that would have gone in their place had that other team prevailed. But win by that margin they did. They would go on to sandwich a pair of five-game playoff series wins around perhaps the most improbable playoff series comeback in NHL history. After dropping their first three games, then coming back to tie the series at three games apiece only to go down by a 3-0 score in Game 7, the team roared back with four unanswered goals against one of the best goaltenders of this generation to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. The team went on to the Stanley Cup finals, where they finally fell short. But it was an amazing ride for that team, their new coach, and their rabid fans.
The Caps have not found magic in a bottle (yet) and seem likely to struggle to get and keep a hold on one of the slots in the bottom half of the playoff seedings. But in taking this path, perhaps the analogy one is searching for isn't Dan Bylsma and the Pittsburgh Penguins (Bylsma was promoted from within the Penguins' system), but rather Peter Laviolette and the 2009-2010 Philadelphia Flyers.
(a doff of the cap to The Washington Times' Ted Starkey, as well as J.P. and the contributors at Japers' Rink who reminded us where the Flyers were this time in 2009).