Well, Caps fans, there will be a season. And a short one it will be. If there is one theme that might best fit this 48-game season, it is this…
“Just Get In.”
Sure, you’ve heard that before, that in the NHL finishing at the top of the heap in the regular season does not mean much, and even the also-ran can succeed in the post season. After all, the Los Angeles Kings will defend the 2012 Stanley Cup having won it as an eighth-seed last spring.
That is the rare exception. This time, though, "just get in" might mean something. The clear comparison here is 1995, when the league started late after a lockout and played a 48-game season. In the first round of the playoffs that season, big upsets (if you could call them that) were not rare. For instance…
- The Vancouver Canucks, a team that finished with only 48 points in the regular season off an 18-18-12 record, beat the 28-15-5 (61-point) St. Louis Blues.
- The San Jose Sharks, who finished a dismal 19-25-4 (42 points) in the regular season, beat the Calgary Flames – the champion of the Pacific Division (24-17-7, 55 points).
- The New York Rangers, who finished the regular season 22-23-3 (47 points), knocked off the Quebec Nordiques, who had the best record in the East that year (30-13-5, 65 points).
- The New Jersey Devils, who finished the regular season with the same record as the Washington Capitals (22-18-8), beat the Boston Bruins (27-18-3, 57 points) in five games.
The second round was not so kind to underdogs. Three higher seeds – Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia – knocked off lower seeds. But there the Devils were, beating the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that finished nine points ahead of them in the standings (29-16-3, 61 points).
The Devils did it again in the conference finals, beating Philadelphia in six games to reach the finals. There, they made short work of the team with the best regular season record in the league, the Detroit Red Wings (33-11-4, 70 points), sweeping the Wings in four straight to win the Stanley Cup.
And if you’re trying to divine whether starting fast or closing fast makes a difference, well…
- Quebec opened like they were shot out of a cannon, going 12-1-0 in their first 13 games (their only loss would be a one-goal loss to New Jersey). They closed less than supersonic, going 2-4-1 in their last seven games to close the regular season as Eastern Conference champs before being eliminated by the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs.
- The Rangers closed with a rush, compared to the rest of its season, going 7-4-0 to finish one game under .500 before disposing of Quebec in the first round.
- Detroit started hot and never really cooled off. They went 12-4-1 to start the season, and in 48 games they lost consecutive games only once (Games 44 and 45, both on the road in Los Angeles and Winnipeg). They rode the wave all the way to the finals before losing.
- Vancouver struggled early before going 9-5-4 to close the season, then upended the St. Louis Blues in the first round.
- On the other hand, the Blues finished up 7-5-2 after a 21-10-3 start. They dropped a seven-game series to the Canucks to end their season.
Then there were those Devils. It was not as if they started aflame. They were 3-5-2 in their first ten games. And it was not as if they closed with a big kick, either. They were 2-4-1 in their last seven games. As noted, they finished 22-18-8 (52 points), tied for fifth in points among Eastern Conference teams.
But there the Devils were, knocking off the Boston Bruins in five games to open the playoffs, then besting the Pittsburgh Penguins in five to win in the second round. They beat the Philadelphia Flyers in six games to advance to the Stanley Cup final, then swept the Detroit Red Wings in four games to raise the Cup. From a 22-18-8 regular season finish to a 16-4 record in the post season.
All it took was just getting in. This year, it might prove just as true.