The Capitals have once again earned a banner to replace the Mystics’ attendance championships. For the sixth time in the twelve season history of the NHL’s Southeast Division, a.k.a. the Southleast, a.k.a. the NASCAR division, a.k.a. the Expansion division, the Capitals are king.
What does this mean and where might this year’s team measure up? A look back at the Top 5 teams in the history of the illustrious Waffle House Division*…
5. 2008-09 Washington Capitals/2010-11 Washington Capitals
The 08-09 and 10-11 incarnations of the team play different flavors of hockey, but the core elements are still there. In my mind, these teams are on par with one another in terms of how they stack up league-wide. 2008-09 was the first year in the Ovechkin era with real expectations on the team going into the season after the surprise playoff run the year before. After a pair of early playoff exits, the expectations on the current roster and coaching staff could not have been greater. This season the team wavered, morphed, delighted, and frustrated its way to yet another division championship. It’s hard to believe that the organization has gone from primetime cable-worthy turmoil and possibly sneaking into or missing the playoffs entirely, to being poised to capture the Eastern Conference on the last day of the season. The numbers don’t lie, when the 2010-11 Caps were good, they were extremely good. The question fans have been waiting 12 months to be answered now looms: will they be as good when it really matters?
4. 2009-10 Washington Capitals
In terms of regular season play, last year’s Capitals team set the benchmark for offense and, to borrow a phrase, “winning” (ugh). Set your copy of NHL 11 to moderate difficulty and see if you can score 318 goals in a season. The Caps did just that, and were one measly Mike Green goal away from having eight (!) 20-goal scorers. The President’s Trophy winning squad made its 121 points look easy, and was, at times, simply a beautiful example of free-flowing offensive hockey. On defense and in net, the team was average, both aesthetically and statistically (233 goals allowed was indeed exactly the league average that year). 2009-10 was also the season that the Caps officially became Ovi’s team, seeing the departure of captain Chris Clark in the trade for Jason Chimera. I could go on, listing other noteworthy features of this season, but ultimately I have to come to the fact that the team imploded on itself like so much antimatter when it actually counted. This is completely unfortunate because a) it sucked, and b) it made us forget how good that team was at its best.
3. 2001-2 Carolina Hurricanes
The ’01-’02 Canes were a veteran team built for playoff hockey. They won the Southeast quietly with 91 points, and proceeded to close out every series until the Stanley Cup Finals on opposing ice in Game Sixes. Ron Francis, the stalwart captain of the Whalers/Hurricanes franchise, was rightfully lionized for his gutty performance in the playoffs, leading the team in postseason points at age 38. Jeff O’Neill, Rob Brind’Amour, Glen Wesley and Sami Kapanen were the other faces of the ’01-’02 Canes, in addition to youngster Erik Cole. Carolina was unceremoniously dispatched by Detroit in five games of Finals play, but not without some excellent play by current Caps goaltending coach Arturs Irbe (1.67 GAA in the playoffs).
2. 2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning
In the final year of the “old NHL,” Tampa Bay reminded the league that yes, in fact, there was still a hockey team located in Florida (the search for the whereabouts of the Panthers had been abandoned for some time). The ’03-’04 Lightning rode the toughness and scoring acumen of diminutive Hart and Art Ross winner Martin St. Louis. The team finished just 3 points behind Detroit for the President’s Trophy and gutted out a 7-game victory over Calgary in the Stanley Cup Finals after falling down 2-1. The core of the team, including St. Louis, Vinny LeCavalier and Brad Richards guided Tampa to its first Cup, and somehow Ruslan Fedotenko scored 12 goals in the playoffs (he has only scored over 19 goals once in his NHL career). It almost goes without saying, but the Bolts also needed stellar goaltending to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup and by golly did they get it. Nikolai Khabibulin, who would later become expendable to virtually all but one team in the NHL (Edmonton), posted an insane 1.71 GAA in 23 playoff games.
1. 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes
In the first year of the post-lockout NHL, Carolina made the rest of the division its Pulp Fiction gimp. Racking up 112 points in the regular season and winning a Stanley Cup, the Canes made hockey relevant (at least semi-permanently) in Raleigh and forced people to (sort of) forget about the Hartford Whalers. The idea of southerners getting fired up about hockey finally had started to crystalize and, eventually, stuff like this would happen. Overlooked in the “hey look Cletus and Ellie May, hockey!” hoopla was the fact that this was a dominant regular season team and a nasty playoff opponent. The ’06 Cup-winners had the right mix of veteran leadership (featuring Brind’Amour, Wesley, Mark Recchi and Doug Weight) along with a core of young stars that would later become synonymous with the modern incarnation of the team (Eric Staal, Justin Williams, and of course Cam Ward). Also worth nothing that for the second straight season (there was no ’04-’05, remember), the Stanley Cup featured a team from the NASCAR division against a team from western Canada, and the southern-fried puck-slingers (albeit mostly Canadians themselves) won! How strange is that? One memory that I have of this team, for some reason, is that one of the DC radio stations held some sort of event that invited DC-area residents to come to a bar and drink free Molson and root for Edmonton. This seems well-intentioned but in some way misguided. Forgotten fact: Most folks remember 21 year-old Cam Ward’s incredible playoffs (2.14 GAA in 23 games), but it was actually journeyman Martin Gerber who racked up 38 of the Canes’ 52 regular season wins.
Honorable Mention: 2006-07 Atlanta Thrashers, 1999-00 Capitals, 1999-00 Florida Panthers
*Someone please email me if there is a geographic location in these United States with more Waffle Houses than the southeast.