The Washington Capitals and the strange way we view failure
Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals fell short in their quest for the Stanley Cup.
We treat failure in sports differently than in other areas of our lives. Perhaps this is because our itch, that nagging desire, to overreact unreasonably to failure desperately needs to be scratched and we see sports as a release valve for it. Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals are familiar with failure and to an extent have seen it become a part of their identity; perhaps more than any other team in the NHL (other than the Sharks, I guess).
Over the coming offseason we're going to see a lot of fans, writers and talk show hosts suggest there's something innately wrong with the Washington Capitals. There must be a reason they keep falling short will be the tone of everything you see and hear. When failure becomes your brand, an offseason retool doesn't seem like enough anymore.
Blow it up — you'll hear some of that, too. You'll hear it because frustration reigns supreme at this time of year and the cleansing of negative emotions is done loudly, publicly and permanently on Twitter and every other corner of the Internet. The problem with this line of thinking starts at its genesis — we can't deal with failure in sports. Our biggest problem when we talk about sports is that we think the distance between winning a series and losing it is very far.
Hockey, perhaps more than any other sport on the planet, is fluky. Good teams win more than bad teams, but watch enough hockey and you'll learn that it's quite often better to be lucky than good. That's true over an 82 game season, where teams that are quite good (like the 2015 LA Kings) miss the playoffs because they got fewer bounces than the Calgary Flames. And if chance can ruin a season, you bet it can meddle with a seven game series.
The Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Capitals in six games. That's what I predicted (don't look at the other predictions), but this series could have very easily gone a different direction. The Penguins won twice in overtime (the Capitals won game one in the extra frame), which doesn't cheapen the victory but shows how close Washington was to two extra wins. You know, two wins that would have given the Capitals the series in six. Right.
Pittsburgh outscored the Capitals by one goal — that's it. One goal separated those teams over six games but the Penguins won with a game in hand. The possession numbers are just as narrow. Pittsburgh's score-adjusted corsi-for in round two: 390.9. Washington's: 384.4. That's it. A measly 6.5 shot attempts separated the two teams and Washington had 20.4 more scoring chances than the Pens over the series.
My point isn't that the Penguins didn't deserve to win the series, it's that the Capitals' failure is not as great as some will claim. In addition to this common misconception is the perception of these two teams entering the series. Washington had home ice as the Presidents Trophy winner, leading many to presume the Capitals as the favorites in the series. That reasoning is terribly and hopelessly flawed.
Washington finished first in the NHL with a PDO of 101.7, while the Penguins finished ninth with a 100.7 mark. While the difference between these teams is slight, it's worth noting that for the better part of the season Braden Holtby put up absolutely monster numbers to help his team out to a big lead in points. Here's the Capitals' even strength save percentage chart.
On January 1, the Capitals were in first in the Metropolitan Division by 11 points. They had 58 points in 37 games, averaging 1.57 points a contest. From that point forward the Capitals points per game dipped to a pace of 1.38 points per game as Holtby returned to Earth. Then of course there's the Caps' 4-2 record in the shootout and their 7-6 record in overtime games, neither of which factor into playoff performance.
The Capitals failed this season, just like the Ducks, Blackhawks, Kings and the upcoming handful of teams that fell short of the Stanley Cup. For teams whose only goal is winning a Cup, this failure compounds every season the trophy doesn't end up in their hands. Falling short of the ultimate prize is the reality of 29 out of 30 teams every year and we shouldn't criticize great teams disproportionately to their failure. Losing is a part of life, and sports would become a lot more enjoyable if we did a better job accepting it.