The Capitals are the Stanley Cup favorites but their playoff history and record this season vs. the West raise red flags.
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The Washington Capitals are the favorites in Vegas to win the Stanley Cup, currently sitting at +400. Which makes sense, given that they were far and away the best team in hockey during the regular season. Not only did the Presidents' Trophy winners finish with 120 points (11 more than the Western top seed Dallas Stars, who held the second-best record in the NHL), they also held the best goal differential by a wide margin at +59 (Pittsburgh, which had the second best, finished at +42). It’s a result you’d expect when a team has the best goaltender in the league by several measures in Braden Holtby, and an offensive unit that includes 50-goal scorer Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie.
Since the Presidents' Trophy was created for the 1985-86 season, only three teams have won it with a better record than the 2015-16 Capitals. That’s not quite Golden State Warriors level history, but when people talk about the great regular seasons in hockey 20 years down the line, this team will certainly get some consideration. Yet they’re still 4 to 1 to win the Cup, and while that’s the best mark, some may look to the NBA at the Warriors’ absurd –140 line and see some value in Washington’s odds. Quadrupling your money on the best team in the league? Sounds easy, right?
Here’s my advice: Don’t be fooled.
Let’s look at one of the teams that finished with more than 120 points: the Capitals, who won the trophy with 121 back in 2009-10. By most measures, that team was even better than this one. They didn’t have Holtby, granted, but they had Ovechkin, Backstrom and Alexander Semin in his prime. Think that +59 goal differential is ridiculous? The 2009-10 Caps finished at +85. Plus-85! It's still the only team since 2007 to finish with more than 300 goals in a season. Washington ended that regular season on a 5-0-1 roll, and seemed primed to make a deep playoff run and win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
And then, as they so often seem to do in the postseason, the Caps collapsed. After gaining a 3-1 advantage in the first round against the Montreal Canadiens, who barely snuck into the playoffs, Washington scored only three goals in the final three games, dropping all of them. Ovechkin and company couldn’t solve goalie Jaroslav Halak and a Montreal defense that blocked 182 shots in the series. It set off a disturbing trend for Washington, which seemed to cruise through every regular season but fall flat on its face in the playoffs against veteran blueline units and elite goaltending.
The Capitals’ current roster is probably the best it’s been since at least 2010, and while the Philadelphia Flyers do have a very good goaltender in Steve Mason, it’s highly unlikely that history repeats itself in the first round. But in the Conference semi-finals, the Caps will likely get the Penguins, the hottest team in the league over the past month. There's an outside chance they could meet the Rangers, a team with the elite goaltending (assuming Henrik Lundqvist is healthy and fully on his game) that has eliminated Washington from the playoffs twice in the past five years.
If the Caps do get out of the East and make it to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1998, the potential matchups get even tougher. The Anaheim Ducks are bigger and stronger, and Washington only managed one regulation goal against them in two games this season. They fared better against the Los Angeles Kings, but I’ll take a Drew Doughty-led defensive unit and a playoff-mode Jonathan Quick in a seven-game series. The Dallas Stars scored more goals than Washington during the regular season and ripped the Capitals apart in their two meetings. And the Chicago Blackhawks just seem to do a better job in the big moment. The Caps did finish with the best record in the league, but it also got to beat up on the basement dwellers of the East for half the season. Against the top six teams in the West, the Caps were 4-7-1.
It doesn’t matter that Washington dropped five of their last seven games—the Caps had nothing left to play for, and the Blackhawks lost their final four games last season before winning the Stanley Cup. It doesn’t matter that Ovechkin has been labeled a choke artist in the playoffs—hockey is about more than one player, not like basketball, where one star can singlehandedly guide his team to the finals. It also doesn’t matter that the Presidents' Trophy winner has won the Stanley Cup only twice since 2002.
What does matter is that recent history has shown that the Washington Capitals can find themselves overmatched in a playoff series. They score a ton of goals and they have a stacked roster from top to bottom, but they have struggled both this season and in seasons past against elite defensive units, and this NHL postseason is full of them. Put them in the Pacific Division, with five games each against the Kings and Ducks, and I doubt you’d see this team finishing with 120 points.
The Caps are still the favorite, and with Kuznetsov, Ovechkin and Holtby all playing at an elite level and respected coach Barry Trotz guiding them, they absolutely have the tools to make a deep run. Quite frankly, their fans deserve it, after spending eight years with the best player in hockey on their team without even a conference finals appearance to show for it. If any year is “the year,” this is it. But with the parity in the NHL, nothing is guaranteed. And considering this team’s history of playoff disappointment, combined with its struggles against the West, I’m putting my money elsewhere.
If you have to bet on an Eastern Conference team, look at the Penguins, who sit at +900 to win the Cup. They've won 15 of their last 17 (including their Game 1 victory over the Rangers) and appear to be peaking at the right time, and unlike Washington, they’ve already won a championship with their current core. But don’t bet on the Capitals.