Thursday, April 11, 2013

Washington Capitals: History Echoes in the Number "48"

In 1995, the National Hockey League was new to this whole “lockout” thing.  On the heels of what should have been a springboard to increased interest and attention paid to the sport – that being the benefit of a Stanley Cup won by the New York Rangers in 1994 after a 54-year drought since the Blueshirts last hoisted the Cup -- the league went ahead and shot itself in the foot (it would not be the last time).  The NHL missed three months of the season before sorting things out and starting an abbreviated 48-game schedule. 

For the team that lost to the Rangers in the 1994 Eastern Conference finals – the New Jersey Devils – the late season start was something that they found disagreeable.  Jacques Lemaire, in just his second season behind the Devils’ bench after taking over for the late Herb Brooks in the 1993-1994 season, watched in dismay as his team stumbled out of the gate to start the 1995 season, winless in their first four games before edging the Buffalo Sabres in Game 5 to go 1-3-1 in their first five games. 

The Devils stuggled to find traction over the next two months, failing to win any more than two games in a row and going 11-10-5 after their 1-3-1 start to sit in seventh place in the Eastern conference with a 12-13-6 record, clinging to a playoff spot only one point ahead of the Rangers, the Florida Panthers, and the Buffalo Sabres. 

But then, the Devils ran off their first three-game winning streak of the season.  That winning streak would be the start of a 10-5-2 finish that allowed the Devils to finish 22-18-8, tied with the Washington Capitals for fifth place in the Eastern Conference. 

Here were the Devils, a team with a coach in only his second season after an eight-year hiatus since his last NHL coaching stop, a team that struggled out of the gate early, a team that struggled to find its footing through the middle stretch of the season, a team that closed with a rush to secure a playoff spot.

And what did the Devils, who clawed their way to that playoff spot, do?  They dispatched the Boston Bruins in the first round in five games, limiting the Bruins to five goals and shutting them out three times.  They did the same to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference semi-finals, holding a Penguin team with two 20-goal scorers and 32-goal scorer Jaromir Jagr to just nine goals in five games. The Devils had a bit tougher time in the conference finals, beating the Philadelphia Flyers in six games, but did so by holding the Flyers to two or fewer goals in each of the four wins.  Finally, they capped off their playoff run with a flourish, sweeping the Detroit Red Wings in four games, holding the Wings to only seven goals in those four games.

A slow start, a struggle along the road, finding their way, and finally winning in a way that would become the team’s signature – in this case a stingy defense and rock-solid goaltending that held opponents to 34 goals in 20 post season games.

Any of this sounding the least bit familiar?  Well, at least in the season to date. 

Here sit the Washington Capitals 40 games into the 2013 season, a team that was also winless in their first four games before winning in Game 5 to go 1-3-1, a team that struggled to establish a consistent personality under a head coach with no previous NHL head coaching experience, a team for which the light seemed to go on over their collective heads 35 games into the season, one that has won its last five games, one that seems poised to secure a playoff spot when it was all but written off this time last month.

History never repeats itself perfectly, and there are differences between the 1995 New Jersey Devils and the 2013 Washington Capitals.  For instance, the Capitals do not have Martin Brodeur in goal.  But remember, too, that Brodeur had only 51 games of NHL experience before that Stanley Cup season and was coming off a 1994 post season in which he almost dragged the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals (he had a 1.95 goals against average and a .928 save percentage that post season). 

Braden Holtby should not be compared to Martin Brodeur for their comparative bodies of work, but Holtby’s early career path is not unrecognizable from Brodeur’s.  Holtby had only 21 games of NHL experience before this season, but he came up one goal allowed short of dragging the Caps to a conference final last spring (he had a 1.95 goals against and a .935 save percentage).

There are differences in coaching.  Jacques Lemaire did have two seasons of experience in Montreal, even if they did come eight years before taking over in New Jersey.  Adam Oates had no such experience before this season.  But in both one can see the attention to detail and the confidence in their philosophies.  Both know and inspire a perception that they know what they want to do and have a plan to do it.

The Devils of 1995 did not have anyone approximating Alex Ovechkin as a goal-scorer, or even Nicklas Backstrom as a playmaker.  Then again, the Caps have no one who could be mentioned in the same sentence (well, except this one) with Scott Stevens or Scott Niedermayer on the blue line.  But those differences reflect a certain sameness, a faithfulness to the talent on their respective rosters, a recognition of strengths and weaknesses.

In 1995, you would likely to have been hard pressed to find anyone who might have thought the Devils had a chance against the Quebec Nordiques (30-13-5), Pittsburgh (29-16-3), or Philadelphia (28-16-4) in the post season.  But the Devils beat two of those teams – Pittsburgh and Philadelphia – on their way to the Stanley Cup.

Few would give any team at the moment, including the Capitals, much of a chance in a seven-game series against Pittsburgh (assuming they get Sidney Crosby and James Neal back to full health), Boston, or even Montreal, a team the Caps just defeated.

We do not subscribe to the old saying that “anything can happen” in the playoffs.  Anything “can” happen, but rarely “does” anything happen.  It suggests too much luck, too much random influence.  Sometimes, though, a team finds itself along the way.  The early struggles and misfortune turn into success as the team finds a personality and confidence from simple repetition and learning of a hockey philosophy.

This year’s Capitals did not have the benefit of a full training camp to incorporate at least the basics of a new hockey system.  They had a new ingredient to incorporate in a critical position (Mike Ribeiro at center) and little time to find chemistry.  You had the team’s most important player playing a new position for the first time in his career with the entire world of hockey (and “world” would be the apt term) watching.

But here we are, the Capitals that struggled have strung together a nice run of success for themselves.  While it would be correct to point out that much of that run came at the expense of teams not having much success this season, we might agree that this is a much better team on April 10th than it was on February 10th – 3-8-1 and dead last in the Eastern Conference.

The phrase “anything can happen” has no meaning here.  That there is a template for success does.  And one only need go to the last time the NHL played a 48-game season to find it.

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