The Washington Capitals are careening into the holidays like a jalopy on an icy road. They have been unable to generate much traction since their 7-0-0 start to the season. Since that start, the Caps have not won more than two games in succession and have accomplished that meager feat only three times covering their last 22 games.
The sliding around on the road that is the regular season leaves the Caps 15-13-1, in 12th place in the Eastern Conference as of this morning, and with eight games left in the 2011 portion of the 2011-2012 season in danger of finishing that portion of the season below .500.
So, if the ambition here is to win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history, we have to ask the question… when was the last time a team with a record below .500 at midnight, January 1st, gone on to win the Stanley Cup?
Thirty-two years ago, the New York Islanders – a team fresh from the disappointment of five consecutive post-season exits (four of them in the league semi-finals) – were about to find themselves stuck at 13-15-6 as the ball dropped in Times Square to herald the beginning of 1980. It did not look good for the Isles. And it wasn’t as if they were scalding hot as they completed the 1980 portion of that 1979-1980 season, either. They finished up 26-13-7 to end the season in second place in the Patrick Division, 25 points behind the Philadelphia Flyers. Oddly enough, it would be the Flyers that the Islanders would vanquish in the Stanley Cup finals that season to win the first of what would be four consecutive Stanley Cups.
Since then, however, mediocrity on New Year’s Eve has not been a hallmark of eventual champions. In the 29 seasons since the Islanders pulled off the unlikely feat of winning it all after being a below-.500 team on New Year’s Eve, 25 teams had at least 20 wins by January 1st. Nineteen teams were at least ten games over .500. Even since the lockout (and the dreaded “three-point” games), only one team – the 2008-2009 Pittsburgh Penguins – won the Stanley Cup with fewer than 20 wins at midnight, January 1st (and they had 19).
So, you can look at this in one of two ways. You can think to yourself that the Caps are like the 1980 Islanders – a team knowing several years of playoff disappointment, on their way to a mediocre season, but one that found something in themselves to soldier on, make the playoffs, and start a run of Stanley Cups not seen since (we'd settle for just the one at the moment).
Or, you can look at the last 29 years, the positions in which teams put themselves as the calendar changed over, and conclude that the Caps simply don’t have the magic stuff this time to finally skate with the Cup.
In one way or another, whether things will end with something grand or something bland, history will repeat itself.