Caps continue quest for elusive Stanley Cup

Eric McErlain Sports Blogger
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Like most Septembers in Washington, D.C., the attention of local sports fans is primarily focused on the Washington Redskins. But despite the fact that Dan Snyder’s team has started the season with two consecutive victories, the team in town that’s closest to a championship is the Washington Capitals of the National Hockey League.

Though the regular season won’t start until October, training camp for the Caps opened last Saturday morning. You really ought to get out to see them sometime. That is, if you can find a ticket.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the team’s home, the Verizon Center, looked more like a tomb than an arena on game nights. But now, buoyed by a young lineup that’s catapulted the team to the top of the standings in recent seasons, the franchise can boast that it’s sold out 106 consecutive home games. That’s an achievement that the team’s original owner, the late Abe Pollin, could have hardly dreamed of when the team played deep in the Maryland suburbs at the late and unlamented Capital Centre.

On the ice however, the ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup, remains stubbornly elusive. It’s a failure that isn’t attributable to a lack of trying.

Since purchasing the team in 1999, Caps owner Ted Leonsis has pursued two distinct paths to on-ice success.

First, there was the easy way, trying to replace an aging core of players with high-priced free agents. That strategy was put in place in 2001, when Leonsis overruled his hockey people, acquired mercurial superstar Jaromir Jagr and proceeded to give him one of the richest contracts in NHL history.

While that trade and incredible contract electrified the city’s hockey fans for a time, spending all of those dollars didn’t produce enough victories. Faced with an expensive failure, Leonsis gave the go-ahead to begin the breakup of the team during the 2003-04 season, less than three years after the Jagr trade. The team crashed to the bottom of the standings and the fans stopped coming.

But as painful as that season was, it represented the beginning of the team’s re-birth. The players traded away helped yield draft picks and prospects that now form the core of the lineup. And the drop in the standings meant climbing back to the top of the heap when it came time to draft new players. As fate and luck would have it, the Caps had the first pick in their hip pocket when Alex Ovechkin, a young Russian winger with more drive in his pinky than Jagr has in his whole body, was available in the 2004 draft.

Since then, the trajectory for the team has pointed nowhere but up. Ovechkin was a revelation from the moment he stepped on the ice for his first game in the league, and it soon became apparent that there was more than enough young talent in the rest of the lineup to help put the puck in the net and provide a very entertaining night out on the town. Mix in the addition of minor league lifer and genuine character Bruce Boudreau as the team’s head coach, and the team returned to the playoffs in the spring of 2008.

It was then that the franchise learned that it was in for another hard lesson, that victories in the regular season are not necessarily predictive of success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. So while Boudreau has been able to lead the team to four consecutive appearances in the postseason, the team has only advanced past the first round twice.

Each playoff exit has proven to be more painful than the last.

    • In 2008, the team was eliminated on home ice in overtime of a seventh game against the hated Philadelphia Flyers.
    • In 2009, the team dropped a seventh game on home ice again, this time in a blowout to Sidney Crosby and the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
    • In 2010, the team was heavily favored to roll over the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs. After taking a 3-1 series lead, the team lost three straight and dropped the series in one of the biggest upsets in recent NHL history. Once again, the defeat was capped with a game seven loss at home.
    • 2011 looked a little brighter after the Caps dispatched the New York Rangers in the first round, but the wheels couldn’t have come off the bus fast enough as the Caps were promptly swept in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Each failure has been followed by more tinkering to the lineup, and there’s plenty of reasons to believe that the changes made this offseason will help put them over the top. The team has added more grit on the wings (Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer) and veteran savvy (defenseman Roman Hamrlik and center Jeff Halpern, a native of Potomac, Maryland, in his second stint with the team).

But perhaps most important of all was the surprising addition of elite goalie Tomas Vokoun. A casualty of the NHL’s salary cap, Vokoun was left without a team to play for when the Florida Panthers declined to re-sign him to another multi-year deal. Enter Caps general manager George McPhee, who was able to secure Vokoun at the bargain price of just $1.5 million for this upcoming season. Finding a goalie like Vokoun who can steal games on nights when the rest of the team is not playing its best hockey was an incredible coup.

Unfortunately, NHL championships are not won in June, July and August. And they’re not won between October and April either, as this team can surely attest. So enjoy the Caps’ regular season for what it is — a preview of the main event that comes every spring. And keep your fingers crossed. At this point, that’s the only thing that’s really left to do.

Eric McErlain blogs at Off Wing Opinion, a Forbes “Best of the Web” winner. In 2006 he wrote a “bloggers bill of rights” to help integrate bloggers into the Washington Capitals’ press box. Eric has also written for Deadspin, NBC Sports and the Sporting News, and covers sports television for The TV News. Follow Eric on Twitter.