Revisiting the 2011-12 Capitals
Two kinds of disappointment for two very different reasons. I’m referring, of course, to when the Washington Capitals’ 2010-11 and 2013-14 seasons came to their respective ends. Though no one knew it at the time, April 2011 ushered in the Caps’ descent from near-greatness. Three years later, the Caps were practically at rock bottom, with their Cup-contending window all but slammed shut. A handful of things separated the two teams: offensive firepower, a division title, and Alex Ovechkin’s goal total, to name a few. But they both shared the heartbreak and humiliation we call upon easily come playoff time.
Now that I’ve reopened old wounds, let’s take a look at the key differences between the 2010-11 Capitals and their 2013-14 counterparts. 2010-11 was supposed to be a huge year for the Caps: despite a shocking upset, they were going to bounce back to playoff glory. They were no longer clear-cut favorites to hoist Lord Stanley, but a deep playoff run was expected. Anything less was failure.
Fast-forward to October 2013, after seasons of further disappointment, and we wondered if the Caps’ lockout-shortened success could be replicated long-term (specifically, the part where they went 11-1-1 in the month of April.) Armed with a proper training camp and 48 games worth of regular-season experience, Adam Oates had supposedly worked out the kinks in his system. But the memory of being shut out on home ice by the hated Rangers was still fresh in our minds, and we wanted results. Initially, the Caps didn’t disappoint–much–when they narrowly lost an exciting season opener to the reigning champs, Chicago. But it was quickly evident that they needed more than a top-four defenseman to rise above the ranks of the Metropolitan Division.
This October, we approach the Caps’ 41st season in the NHL and without a Stanley Cup. Have they finally turned a corner? Firing coaches is no longer enough to quiet the masses; George McPhee got the ax in the offseason, too. New GM Brian MacLellan promised change, and we got it: the ailing defense was finally addressed, although the Brooks Orpik deal has been endlessly vilified with good reason. Lest we forget, the Caps still lack a true second-line center (how many seasons will it take before we lock one up long-term?)
On the coaching front, Barry Trotz has been well-received. He’s made clear that he’ll coach in the style best suited to his players–not necessarily with a defense-first mentality. This alone is promising; the Caps have a coach who will properly utilize their roster. Then again, Trotz is another coach with another system ready to be implemented. How long will it take to adjust? Will the power play remain lethal? Will the Corsi-for surpass 50%? Will the puzzle pieces click to form a contending team?
The same questions were asked this time in 2011 (well, maybe not the Corsi.) That season ended in typical agonizing fashion, although the memory of Joel Ward’s series-winning goal against the big, bad Bruins remains a franchise highlight. This time around, will things be different? Well, there’s a new coach in place, and the front office underwent a makeover. Ovechkin is still enigmatic in the eyes of the mainstream media, but his scoring ability is untouchable. The defense got an upgrade. Goalie guru Mitch Korn came along for the ride. All that’s left is watching these adjustments play out.
However, they’re meaningless until the Caps go from ninth in the Eastern Conference to first, or somewhere in that ballpark. As we know well, regular season success doesn’t translate into the postseason–and the playoffs seem light years away. It’s August, and we need something to get us going until October. On paper, we can find plenty of reasons to be hopeful. The players themselves have provided feel-good quotes that make us want to see these new Capitals in action. Brooks Laich even says they “need to win this year.” He’s right. DC needs a Cup; it’s long overdue.
So will the Caps make a Cup Final appearance? Will they hoist thirty-five pounds of gleaming perfection this June? There are no guarantees and much is unproven, but Laich’s sentiments make the possibility just a bit more real. They must become the norm for the players. We, the fans, would do well to reacquaint ourselves with hope and resilience. We should consider that maybe optimism isn’t the enemy, that maybe it’s more than the monotony of the offseason getting to us. Maybe cliches do hold an iota of truth. Maybe this will finally be our year.