Okay, I admit that was link bait, but now that you're here, this is the real question at hand.
Does a team that is likely to have a high seed really need to play 100% for every game in the season, and is that really in their best interest?
I have thought about this question a LOT throughout my life watching and playing sports, and the answer is always a little different in each sport. Hockey is a tough one to decipher.
The first question that invariably comes to mind when considering the larger question is..
"Does it really hurt you to play down to the level of crappy opponents?"
The Caps clearly do this, and yet with the skill they have they are currently winning games (or at least getting points) on a fairly consistent basis, even when being outworked by inferior teams (skill wise). The big question is do they carry this over when playing the leagues other elite teams? So far the answer has been pretty clearly, no. Boston, Detroit, Philly, San Jose have all been solid efforts and they have taken points in almost every one of them.
So that leaves the question, if you're getting the points you need for a top seed, does playing hard only against good teams mean you are ready for playoff hockey?
Trying to apply last year's experience in the post-season to this question seems to return an unclear answer. The first round was a mix of a very young and inexperienced team meeting an elite goaltender who single-handedly won several games for his team. Were the Caps not ready to play after an "easy" regular season? Were they simply still learning about the intensity of playoff hockey? Was it simply running into a hot goaltender? Was it a little of column A, a little of Column B, etc.
Nothing resolved there in my mind.
So that brings us to the next question,
"Do you open yourself up to more injury playing hard every game?"
It's an oft-repeated idea that in NFL where contact is the goal of nearly every movement, a player who's playing a game "not-to-get-hurt" does seem to take on an almost higher risk of injury playing that way. The NHL on the other hand, is a fairly easy league to safely play "soft", for lack of a better word. Plenty of "finesse" players play their whole careers this way and avoid a lot of injuries that the rough and tumble teams/players deal more often with. So it seems hard to avoid the fact that "softer" games (if that's what happens when you don't put out a full effort) will likely mean less injuries. So the question becomes what is the trade-off in points and the standings, not to mention motivation level versus the value of a less injured team?
My Guess here is that the rougher the NHL gets, the more avoiding serious injury is going to play a role in who contends for the Stanley Cup each year. So again, it seems there may be some value here as well.
Do you tire yourself, and your team, out by playing all 82 games full out?
Clearly this question squarely lands in the realm of the NBA. Anyone who has even a passing interest in pro basketball in this country accepts that NBA teams routinely do not put out full effort for much of the season. Even championship teams have been accused of coasting through some/much/most of the NBA season, and they don't seem to have trouble picking-it-up for the playoffs.
Does that work in the NHL? My first reaction is to say no.
Too many top seeded teams have been bounced in the playoffs lately to assume that an elite team can wait till the post season to turn it on. But is that the reason that San Jose was bounced in the first round last year or is it that they aren't built for the post-season for some reason? Do they not have the proper team makeup? Is the league parity so great that elite teams in general are ,year-in and year-out, at risk of upset?
My take... teams that have gotten bounced have run into hot teams that are better suited for the playoffs. I think much of this can be seen how you played against the better teams in the league during the regular season, perhaps the teams that get bounced got to their lofty position by beating up on crappy teams and not playing all that well against the other quality teams.
Is there any benefit to the top seed?
I have felt strong about this one for a while now. NO. There is no benefit.
Why? Because every year some team has had a rash of injuries, or picked up the right guy at the deadline and despite being a low seed is one of the toughest outs in the bracket. Who is that team going to be? Who knows, last year the Pens made a late run to move up to the 4 seed, but plenty of other times it's a 6,7 or 8 seed that is the one "nobody wants to play". Thus, it's a crap shoot that can't possibly be known until the last game is played as to how your matchup is going to work out.
Aside for having home ice advantage (which itself doesn't seem to be THAT important), there's little I can see that's of value to being the number one seed (or President's trophy winner). Of late they haven't been making much noise in the playoffs.
Can you get the Mo going for the playoffs? (and no I don't mean either B or Sha)
This seems to me to be the single greatest failure of the teams that can't get themselves to take every game seriously. There IS something that comes from playing every game like it's genuinely important to the progression and intensity level of your team. When teams get to the playoffs who have been fighting for every last point in the regular season they invariably have that little extra something. They fight just that much harder for every puck, they are just that much more intense and sharp on every aspect of the game.
Thus my take is NO, you definitely have to have the Mo and intensity going when you ENTER the playoffs.
So what's the magic mix then? Well it seems like there's two ways to make it work for a strong playoff run.
- Be a team that plays every second hard and hope that you have sturdy players (and that you get a little lucky on the injury front)
- Be the team that can truly turn it on a few months out and be rollin when the post season begins.
So where does that leave our current group of Capitals?
Well, if you believe that the first round of the playoffs was an indicator that they weren't able to get things going until it was almost too late, it puts this teams square in the cross-hairs of an early round upset.
If you think that was mostly a playoff inexperience "thing", than their ability to get rollin late in the season is still an unknown.
Perhaps we shouldn't take our chances and get things rolling now... who knows perhaps we're a better fit for the first category.