Learning from Adversity

NEWARK NJ - NOVEMBER 22: Mark Fayne #34 of the New Jersey Devils skates in his first career NHL game against Brooks Laich #21 of the Washington Capitals at the Prudential Center on November 22 2010 in Newark New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
"I know it's everybody's sin, you got to lose to know how to win..."

- Aerosmith, Dream On

A few weeks ago, former Capital and CSN analyst Alan May talked about how adversity can actually help a team down the line – whether it’s the adversity of a critical media, a series of injuries or a stretch of less-than-stellar play, the general sense is like that old saying: that which does not kill us makes us stronger.

Well, as the Caps struggle through one of their worst stretches in recent memory, there ain’t nobody dead. So the other part must be true, right? That with each day filled with bizarrely lopsided losses and ill-timed injury the team is, slowly but surely, getting stronger.

It’s certainly not a guarantee; it’s possible that adversity now (such as it is) is just a precursor to more adversity later, and at a worse point in the season. But it’s important to note two things. One, it’s only November - something that can never be overstated - and things that go wrong now have six months to be sorted out. Now is the time to experiment, to adjust, and yes, to fail.

And two, it happens (in varying degrees) to every team - you only have to look back at some recent Stanley Cup finalists to see it.

The 2008-09 Penguins were hardly a picture of dominance over the course of the season, following up their year as second place finishers to Detroit with a season of inconsistency. For them, it wasn’t a lengthy losing streak but a prolonged stretch of mediocrity that lasted from mid-November to late February; during that period of 44 games they hovered around .500 and only strung together back-to-back wins three times. On February 15 they replaced head coach Michel Therrien with Dan Bylsma and finished out the season an amazing 16-2-3 en route to their first Cup in almost twenty years.

Their two-time opponents in the Finals, the Detroit Red Wings, have been seen as a paradigm of consistency and dominance - a reputation well-earned and well-maintained over the last decade. Yet even they took their lumps, particularly in February of 2008, when they earned just one win in eleven tries and were shut out three times. Five of those losses came to teams who would finish well out of the playoff picture, and while they ended up with a winning record within their division, a 17-12-3 record against four teams whose highest finish was 8th is nothing to write home about.

Last year the Blackhawks were a fairly dominant team from start to finish, but even they had lapses. They went 3-7-1 between October 17 and November 6, then endured a fairly rough month of March in which they went 6-7-2 and won back-to-back games only once. Still, they came out of the season with a record of 52-22-8, a division title…and a Stanley Cup.

As for their opponents, the struggles of the 2009-10 Flyers were a season-long storyline (and resulted in a mid-season coaching change) – but central to that was a 20-game span from mid-November to mid-December that saw them earn exactly 5 wins while being shut out three times and outscored 64-38. It wasn’t the only rough patch, however, nor was it their last, as six wins in their final 17 games almost resulted in them missing the playoffs altogether.

To compare the Caps to any of these teams is not to say that they are definitely bound for the Stanley Cup Finals this year, nor is it to say that a run of three games in which they put together two horrific performances and one decent but ultimately losing effort is anywhere near a catastrophe. After all, despite a start that has admittedly been less than stellar they still sit atop the Southeast Division and are one of the top teams in the East. We've talked before about how a good team finds ways to win, and they're doing just that more often than not.

What it does show, however, is the fairly obvious yet always key fact that no team goes 82-0. Rarely does the team we see in October or November mirror the one we'll see in April or May or June. Whether it's by personnel changes on or behind the bench, system changes or just a simple attitude change (which may be the biggest issue with this team right now), there's time to fix what's wrong. And in the long run, things like this can bond a team together, teach them a few well-needed lessons about focus and help to provide them with the right mental state to go along with the talent - and push them further in the postseason.

Because two games is hardly twenty. Because this is hardly adversity compared to where the Caps were this time three years ago. And because we have to believe that which does not kill us makes us stronger.

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