Washington Capitals season means nothing without Stanley Cup

The real season starts now

Friday night was a historic moment for the Washington Capitals franchise. Too bad none of it will mean anything if the team is unable to capture the Stanley Cup.

Fans that attended Friday’s largely meaningless game were treated to one of the most exciting goals of the season. No, it wasn’t Alexander Ovechkin skating around everyone and shooting from his knees over three defenders, but instead it was Ovechkin’s 50th goal of the season and Nicklas Backstrom’s 100th point of the year.

This makes the third year in a row, and fourth time in his career, that Ovechkin has scored 50 or more goals. Meanwhile, it was Backstrom’s first 100-point season of his career. It was the first time since 1988 that two players achieved those feats in the same game, let alone on the same goal.

It is a great story, but the stats will mean nothing to the players and their fans if they don’t at least make the Stanley Cup Finals. Next week will be the third time in the last three years that Washington was in the playoffs. After bowing out to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round last season, fans are expecting improvement this year, and in reality, they want the cup to come home.

Washington has a record of 54-15-12 this season and has earned 120 points, the most since the Detroit Red Wings earned 124 in the 2005-2006 season. All of that winning has created some high expectations in the media and in Washington, D.C. There is no doubt that Washington can win it all, but the better question is will they?

Only three teams in the last decade have captured the league championship the same year they won the Presidents’ Trophy; the Red Wings did it twice and the Colorado Avalanche did it once. Of all the teams to win the Presidents’ Trophy, the ones who earned more than 120 points have never made it to the Cup finals.

Some may argue that having the best record in the league is an important accomplishment, and it is. However, it is doubtful that the same people who value this achievement can name the last five trophy winners. Most likely their answer will be no, with the exception of perhaps the 2007-2008 Detroit Red Wings who won the Cup.

All this really means is that there is immense pressure on Head Coach Bruce Boudreau, the captain, Ovechkin and the rest of the team in the locker room. Will fans stop coming to games next year if the team doesn’t win the cup? No. That said, will there be backlash if Washington doesn’t bring home the hardware? Almost certainly.

General Manager George McPhee has assembled one of the most potent offenses in National Hockey League history. It would be a huge upset if Washington didn’t at least make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Not only that, but it would be the third season in a row that a team with arguably the best player in hockey, Ovechkin, one of the best young centers in the NHL, Backstrom, and this season’s highest-scoring defenseman, Mike Green, failed to find success in the postseason.

Next week will mark the start of the regular season for Washington. In reality, the playoffs are what the Caps have worked towards all season. It is why the players don’t care about all of the regular season accolades; they want to win it all. Ovechkin made it blatantly clear after last season’s Game 7 loss to Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins that getting to the playoffs to only fall short of the finals is unacceptable.

That intensity should be expected from Ovechkin and the rest of the Caps when they open up their postseason run against the Montreal Canadians. This team was built to win and from their mood and comments in the locker room over the last month, it is all they care about.

If the Caps are going to win it all, they must put the thought of all the accolades out of their mind. For Ovechkin and Backstrom, three 50-goal seasons in a row and a 100-point season will only look good when it is listed next to their name in the NHL Hall of Fame. For the Capitals, the Presidents’ Trophy will only be looked at as an accomplishment if they parade down Independence Avenue with it and the Cup at the same time.

This may sound a little harsh, but to put it into perspective, think of it this way: Fans and media members generally judge the successful teams by the number of banners that are hanging in the stadium’s rafters. Does a team get to hang a banner for winning the Presidents’ Trophy? They don’t.

You can reach this columnist at atomlinson@theeagleonline.com.

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