Some things in sports we can explain. Whether it be through stats, or video, or simple common sense, it’s often done.
And other things we can’t. The Washington Capitals winning the Stanley Cup, and the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs as a whole are one of those things.
Much of Twitter hopped on the Caps Year bandwagon as sort of a joke, as to say “wouldn’t it be hilarious if this Caps won the Cup when the past two teams, obviously better on paper, did not.”
Look at the Capitals the past two seasons, and then look at the Capitals this season. If you knew these rosters without knowing the results and were asked to tell me which one won the cup, I promise you you wouldn’t choose the 2018 team. After back to back second round exists at the hands of the Penguins, after winning the back to back presidents trophies with 118 and 120 points, it seemed like the Capitals Stanley Cup window had closed.
They lost Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, Daniel Winnik, Nate Schmidt, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Karl Alzner last summer alone. It was a fair assumption that their days as a Stanley Cup contender were over, and that they would slowly fall from great to good, good to mediocre, mediocre to Alex Ovechkin moving on and rebuilding.
In fact, here’s how the Caps offseason went compared to every other team in the league courtesy of @domluszczyszyn:
Yet, here we are, with Jakub Vrana’s Instagram stories, and Alex Ovechkin screaming with the cup over his head, doing fountain angels, and taking a mulligan on his first pitch at the Nationals game.
So how did they do it? The star power has always been there: Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Niklas Backstrom, John Carlson, and TJ Oshie, but it didn’t even look like the Capitals were going to be able to ice a roster of NHL players late in the summer. Devante Smith-Pelly was signed to a league minimum contract late in the summer, and Alex Chiasson made the team off of a PTO. The same Devante Smith-Pelly who scored 7 goals in the playoffs including the game tying goal in the 3rd period of the Cup deciding game was signed simply because of the fact that the Capitals needed players.
And the little depth that they did have in September stepped up and exceeded expectations. Tom Wilson was nothing more than a 4th line dirt bag, and while he may not have shed the dirt bag title, he made an impact on the first line next to Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin. Brett Connolly scored 15 goals and formed a great 3rd line with Lars Eller having a career year. Chandler Stephenson earned his NHL spot and did an adequate job filling in on the 4th line where they really didn’t have any solution to that spot coming into the season.
On defense, Brooks Orpik was an anchor, but every coach has his toy. Besides that, pretty much everybody had career years. John Carlson is going to get PAID this summer after scoring 68 points, and veterans Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen had good years as well, but similar to the forwards, it was the other guys that made the difference. Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos took spots out of training camp and filled in nicely in somewhat sheltered roles, as did deadline acquisition Michal Kempny, who stepped up on the top pairing next to John Carlson in the playoffs.
Braden Holtby was not what we know Braden Holtby to be, in fact he was bad with a .907 sv% in 54 games. That was bad enough to have Philipp Grubauer, who was very good with a .923 sv% in 35 games, start game one of the playoffs. But Holtby took over in game 3 of the first round, and never looked back. He went 16-7 with a .922, playing like the type of goalie you need to win a Stanley Cup.
That’s the logical explanation, but that’s not why the Caps are Stanley Cup Champs. This is nothing against the Caps, but they’re champions because hockey is a voodoo filled sport of randomness. The Caps lost their first two games at home against Columbus, and were a Cam Atkinson crossbar away from being down 3-0 in Round 1. But the puck did hit the crossbar, and just seconds later the Capitals went back the other way, getting a lucky bounce off Lars Eller’s shinpad and in for the double overtime winner. Coach Barry Trotz said in the midst of the Stanley Cup celebration that if either of those bounces go the other way, they aren’t Champs.
Try and explain to be why the 2018 version of the Capitals could beat the Penguins in 6 games, but the better, 2016 and 2017 versions of the Capitals couldn’t. Try. It’s like explaining how a massive cargo ship floats. You can’t.
Explain how the Caps took down the Lightning, a team that looked unstoppable after knocking out a powerful Bruins team in just 5 games. And explain how the Caps beat the Vegas Golden Knights, who just defeated the Jets in 5 games, and seemed destined to pull off a miracle.
In the end, it wasn’t the Golden Knights who were the team of destiny. It was the Capitals. Through the improbability, deficits in every series, and dragons to be slayed, Caps Year was truly meant to be.
That’s the only way you can explain this dumb sport.
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