“The whole thing is quite hopeless, so it’s no good worrying about tomorrow. It probably won’t come.” – Frodo, The Lord of the Rings

The Washington Capitals are 30 to 1 longshots to skate with Lord Stanley. Only the Florida Panthers, who bested them at almost every crucial juncture of the season and won the Southeast, have worse chances (40 to 1).

You can count on one hand the number of Capitals who are playing the best hockey of their careers, and none of them are guys whose jerseys are readily available for purchase in the team store. If you were to list the Capitals three goaltenders in reverse order of playoff readiness, you would get a list of the Capitals three goaltenders sorted by severity of injury.

There is, frankly, little rational reason to hope for anything other than an unceremonious dismissal and the dismantling of the roster. Not a single ESPN analyst out of 12 picked the Capitals to win their first round series against the Bruins.

The 2008-09, 2009-10, and 2010-11 Capitals did not wear the favorite hat well. Maybe the underdog is simply more their style.

And if anyone is an underdog, it’s these maddening 2011-12 Capitals.

The squad never looked right even as it was rattling off seven consecutive wins to start the season. This team was a Rubik’s Cube from the start. Fix one problem area like secondary scoring, expose another one, like lack of puck possession. Get some great goaltending, it goes away as the goal horns stop sounding on the other end of the ice.

In ten years hockey people will talk about the Capitals of this era and marvel at what could’ve been with all the firepower and talent the team has had. There will be no living down the legacy that their regular season achievements have earned them.

Hockey teams, however, don’t need to be perfect to win the Stanley Cup, or even come near it. They can be flawed, nearly one-dimensional waves of emotion that carry a team beyond its normal reach. They can be good, and more often than we’d care to admit, they can be lucky.

The Caps can’t do anything about long-term goal of persistently putting a winning hockey team on the ice at Verizon Center, at least not right now.

All they can do is be an outlier, an aberration, the team that was not like the other teams that wore the same uniform and skated the same ice. They’re not the offensive upstarts of ’08, who snuck into the division title and got bested by a deeper team. They’re not the streaky juggernauts of ’09, ’10, and ’11.

They are, in fact, the long written-off Capitals of 2012. They’ve been called the worst things you can call athletes by every major media outlet that covers hockey. Their guts, toughness, dedication, desire and heart have been questioned publicly and repeatedly. To the credit of their critics, the Capitals haven’t always responded with a resounding refutation.

The 2011-12 Capitals aren’t clinging to life because they’re already dead. Just look at the odds. Look at the stats. Look at the predictions.

Sixteen wins isn’t enough time to restore the facade of the team’s old identity. But it is enough time to become something else. If the Caps flame out, everyone was right, lots of people lose their jobs, and we can go about our lives. This may very well happen.

Or, this might be the most fun playoffs in fourteen years.

After all, the most dangerous guy at the table is the one who has nothing to lose.

 

Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report and b’s video game blog “Game Cache.” Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore.