The Missing Rings is a series looking at some of the best teams in NHL history to not win the Stanley Cup. Whether they lose in the first round or game seven of the finals, these great teams have been forgotten because they could not win the big one. For the next installment, the 2009-10 Washington Capitals are the focus.
The Missing Rings: 2009-10 Washington Capitals
Entering the 2008-09 season, the Capitals were a team on the rise. They were coming off their first playoff appearance in seven years. They won the Southeast Division title, also for the first time in seven years. The team was led by the dynamic Alex Ovechkin. He was coming off his first Hart, Art Ross, Rocket Richard, and Lester B. Pearson awards. While Ovechkin was the leader and face of the franchise he was flanked by some incredible talent. Niklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green joined Ovechkin in making up the Capitals core. The team was expected to take another step in 2008-09.
They did just that. They again won the Southeast Division but saw a seven-win 14 point improvement from the year before. Ovechkin continued to dominate the league. He repeated as Hart, Lester B. Pearson, and Rocket Richard Trophy winner. He finished second in league scoring, behind Evgeni Malkin. The Capitals were among the favorites heading into the playoffs.
Historically, the Washington Capitals have had a difficult time of it in the playoffs. At this point, they had only made it out of the second round once in their history. This new group was expected to lead Washington to bigger and better things. The season prior, the Capitals were eliminated in the first round by the Philadelphia Flyers. While the loss could be explained away by inexperience, the Caps needed to continue to build, even in the playoffs.
It did not get off to a great start. They fell behind 3-1 against the New York Rangers. The Caps seemed headed for another playoff disappointment. With their backs against the wall, the Caps responded. They would win the next three games to eliminate the Rangers in seven games. Unfortunately their playoff nemesis was waiting for them in the second round. The Pittsburgh Penguins were looking to get back to the Stanley Cup Final. They lost to the Detroit Red Wings in the Final the year before. The Penguins had their own impressive core of talented players including Malkin, Kris Letang, Jordan Staal, and Sidney Crosby. Crosby and Ovechkin were seen as the two most dynamic players in the league and the faces of the NHL. It was a matchup made in hockey heaven.
The series did not disappoint. It had five one-goal games, three overtime games, game two had hat tricks from both Ovechkin and Crosby. It was more than fans and the league could ask for. Unfortunately for Washington, they fell apart in game seven, on home ice. They lost 6-2 and were eliminated.
The 2009-10 Washington Capitals were again expected to take a big step. Despite the bitter loss to Pittsburgh, the Capitals were still loaded with talent and gained even more valuable experience. It was their time.
Washington did take another step. Washington dominated the league. They secured a 54-15-13 record, good for 121 points. They led the league in goals for with 313. The Capitals has seven players reach the 20 goal plateau. Leading the way was Ovechkin. He won his third consecutive Ted Lindsay Award (formerly Lester B. Pearson). He scored at fifty goals for the third consecutive season and led the Caps with 109 points. Ovechkin formed a dynamic pairing with center Niklas Backstrom. Backstrom finished just behind Ovechkin in scoring with 101 points. Alex Semin had a career year, scoring 40 goals and 84 points. Defenceman Mike Green led all NHL defensemen in scoring with 79 points. The Caps entered the playoffs hot to boot, going 5-0-1 in their last 6 games. Washington looked like a juggernaut.
What Went Wrong
In a word (or two)? Jaroslav Halak. The Capitals faced the Montreal Canadiens in the first round. The Habs squeaked into the playoffs with 88 points. The Capitals were expected to make quick work of their opponents. The Habs won game one 3-2 in overtime. Game two got off to a difficult start as the Canadiens built up a 4-2 lead after two. Washington battled back to tie the game at four midway through the third.
The Habs re-took the lead with just over five minutes remaining. The Capitals seemed headed for disaster when John Carlson tied the game with 1:21 left to force overtime. Niklas Backstrom scored 31 seconds into the overtime to tie the series. The comeback seemed to light a fire under Washington. Games three and four went as expected with Washington dominating 5-1 and 6-3. The Caps returned home for game five with a chance to close out the series.
Halak had other plans. The Canadiens goalie made 38 saves in a Canadiens 2-1 win to force a game six back in Montreal. Game six, Halak had the game of his life. Washington threw everything they had at Montreal to close out the series, but they could not beat Halak. He made 53 saves in a 4-1 Canadiens win setting up a game seven. Game seven played out like game six. Washington dominated but could not score. Halak made 41 saves to backstop the Habs to a 2-1 win and the series victory. Washington was eliminated. They had squandered a 3-1 series lead and were left wondering what happened.
Washington could take some solace as the Habs similarly ousted the Penguins in the second round before falling to the Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
For Washington questions began swirling. What went wrong? How did this happen? Who’s to blame? For a team with a troubled playoff past, this upset felt equal parts devastating and familiar. There was a bit of an overreaction to the loss, however. Rather than seeing the loss as being foiled by a goalie playing otherworldly, Washington felt they need to become more defensive to succeed. This shift changed the course of the team. They continued to play well and be competitive but not as dominant.
The Capitals would qualify for the playoffs eight of the next nine seasons and with six more Southeast/Metropolitan division titles. However, it would take the Caps six season to return to the NHL elite. Unfortunately, their playoff demons continued to show their ugly heads. Only once were the Capitals able to get out of the second round. Bleak as this might seem, there is a happy ending. The one time they made it past the second round, they won their first-ever Stanley Cup in 2018. Making the win extra sweet was Washington finally getting past the Pittsburgh Penguins en route to the Cup.