Capitals should be weary of Presidents' Trophy’s curse

There is a fine line between not wanting the Washington Capitals to win the Presidents’ Trophy — given to the team with the top record in the East — and making sure the team does not collapse down the stretch.

Tuesday’s overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators was the Caps’ third straight loss. They fell to the Carolina Hurricanes last Thursday and the Calgary Flames on Sunday. While the three losses should not cause fans to hit the panic button, it is concerning.

Many, including General Manager George McPhee and Head Coach Bruce Boudreau, want the Caps to claim their first ever Presidents’ Trophy. The award may be a false accomplishment, though, since in the last decade only three teams who captured the trophy won the Stanley Cup. Some call it a curse; in reality, it might have more to do with pressing too hard at the end of the year.

Curses and superstitions are no secret in sports, especially hockey. There is the Madden curse in football, whose latest victim is Troy Polamalu; the Sports Illustrated cover curse in college basketball, which just claimed the Northern Iowa men’s basketball team; and in hockey, the Presidents’ Trophy curse, which claimed the San Jose Sharks last year. Unlike the other two curses, though, the Presidents’ Trophy curse can be explained by a lack of rest.

Last year, the Sharks had a strong end to the season, taking nine of their last 15 games. The late-season run meant their best players were still playing full games, with little rest. It left them fatigued and unable to recover for the NHL playoffs, causing them to be bounced by the Anaheim Ducks in the first round.

The NHL playoff season has been called the most grueling postseason in professional sports. Not only does it consist of four rounds, but each series generally goes to five or six games and sometimes even seven. In theory, if a team was unlucky, it could take 28 games to win the Stanley Cup. Suddenly, playing your best hockey down the stretch up to playoffs doesn’t sound like a good plan.

This worst case scenario may make many fans say, “Stop playing your stars once you clinch a playoff berth and avoid fatigue.” While that sounds like a fine plan, a team can’t come into the playoffs ice cold either. If a hockey team has no rhythm in their game, regardless of talent level, they will lose early in the playoffs.

The question then becomes, “Where is the line between an end of the season collapse and pedal to the metal hockey drawn?”

Of course, a straight answer would be too easy. Every individual team needs to decide on their own when players should rest. In Washington’s case, Alex Ovechkin and company should most likely sit out the two games between tonight’s home game against the Atlanta Thrashers and Washington’s showdown with the Pittsburgh Penguins. A road game in Columbus against an awful Blue Jackets team and a home game against the Boston Bruins are largely unimportant.

Tonight’s game against the Thrashers, on the other hand, is extremely important because Washington needs to stop the losing skid. Pushing it to four games could lead to a full meltdown. While that sounds dramatic, there are still things the Caps need to do before the playoffs start. Not only do they have to get their power play straightened out, they also have to decide who will start in net. It is impossible to accomplish those two tasks when the team’s best players are sitting in the press box.

The Caps need to play hard against the Penguins because it is their last shot against their rivals before the playoffs. Sweeping Pittsburgh in the regular season would certainly put doubt in the flightless birds’ minds about whether they can beat Washington. If Washington loses to Pittsburgh, the doubts will be in the Caps’ minds.

In all reality, barring a total collapse by both teams, they will meet in the Eastern Conference finals. In order to avoid what happened during last year’s playoffs, Washington needs to come in with some swagger. Sweeping the season series will give them the confidence they need.

Now, with all of that said, unlike the rest of their stars, the Capitals must use their playoff goalie more times than their backup down the stretch. It sounds like a contradiction, since the goalie often falls in the category of a team’s best player, but the current questions about who will play in net need to be answered. Unlike last year, there is no secret weapon to come off the bench; both Semyon Varlamov and Jose Theodore have looked bad in their last few starts. Getting either one comfortable in net is extremely important. After all, in the NHL, a team is often times only as good as their goalie.

While the Washington franchise would like the Presidents’ Trophy, the team should be cautious of pushing too hard to get it. Not because there is any terrible curse that comes with it, but because the Caps need to be fresh and rested for their real season — the playoffs. After all, when all is said and done, the team that wins the regular season is never saluted. Only the team that wins Lord Stanley’s Cup is.

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