Last night we got our first look at the ever-developing unit that is the “real” 2011-12 Washington Capitals. They looked sharp and won 3-1 over Columbus, playing for the first time this preseason on their home ice. This should be a really exciting time of year. Hockey is coming back with no pesky NBA season to get in the way, Jaromir Jagr is back in the league, and this could be the final glorious season before another awesome lockout in 2012-13. Lockouts: so hot right now.
I should be really pumped about all of this. But I have an overwhelming sense of dread. I page to the back of my 2011-12 NHL Yearbook, fresh off the presses from The Hockey News. I flip to the back section for predictions. Your 2011-12 Stanley Cup Champions? Aw, crap.
Picking the Capitals to win the Cup isn’t a death sentence, but it certainly doesn’t make me feel better about the team’s chances this year. Expectations are generally not met in sports. That’s why we have gambling and fantasy sports. If every team lived up to its expectations, Las Vegas would look like a ghost town infested with feral dogs.
Speaking of Vegas, I got a troubling tweet from my friend Bob when he was out there this weekend. It had a link to this image, which he said was a “gift” for me:
This was a wise move on Bob’s part, so I can’t fault him for it. For one, I can’t complain, because on paper this was a very nice gesture and it’d be rude to whine about it. However, Bob is a Penguins fan, and he knows exactly what he did by attaching my horrible gambling mojo to the 2011-12 Capitals. Well played, sir.
For those of you who lead productive lives, +700 means the Capitals are 7 to 1 to win the Stanley Cup. The only other team with odds that poor is Vancouver. Even the defending champion Bruins are 10 to 1.
Perhaps more disconcerting besides the Vegas jinxes and magazine predictions is the realization that we are in for a long and frustrating haul. Thinking back to how much “turmoil” followed last season’s edition of the Caps, the team finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference. This team and its fans continue to find new ways to take the roughest path to a 1-seed imaginable. I’m sure this season will be no different.
Aside from just enjoying hockey for hockey’s sake, it will be incredibly frustrating because of these incredibly high expectations. My guess is there are more Capitals fans on the planet right now than there have been at any given time in the team’s history. Everyone is expecting wins. For 82 games, there will be arguments (some more informed than others) of what this team needs to do to be playoff-ready. And we won’t know whether the Caps are “for real” until April.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Capitals hockey in almost any of its forms, as evidenced by the fact that I watched an online stream of a preseason game last night. However, this all feels very familiar, and not in a good way.
When everyone, including odds-makers, sets the bar this high, how can you not worry about inevitable failure, especially given the team’s recent history? The team that wins the Stanley Cup every year is the 1st out of 30 NHL teams. That’s the 99.67th percentile. To “expect” a team to reach that zenith of performance before a puck has even been dropped in sincerity seems insane.
There’s no getting around these expectations though, which is why I’m resolving just to enjoy the ride and wait until spring. Making the playoffs (which a team can do being in the 46.67th percentile) is a foregone conclusion. If the Caps fail to reach that mark, there will be bigger tasks at hand than worry about expectations, such as Caps fans roasting Bruce Boudreau on a spit.
And it’d be silly to try and “manage expectations,” as businessy people say. If you believe in the “incremental success” path to the Cup, then this is the year the Caps need to be in the finals. If you believe in the “talent wins out” path to the Cup, then this is the year the Caps need to be in the finals. If you believe in the “good goaltending” path to the Cup, then this is the year the Caps need to be in the finals. If you believe in the “mix of stars and gritty veterans” path to the Cup, then this is the year the Caps need to be in the finals.
Anything less is failure. That is what I expect of this team. It’s what we all expect of this team. We all also expect a repeat of the past four seasons and an early playoff exit.
As you can see by the betting ticket above, June 10th, 2012 is when the Caps will prove us all wrong. One way or the other.
Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report. He is currently working on a novel about college football. Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore or visit his web site at davegilmorejr.com