On the Caps' new "playoff style of hockey"

(originally posted in a comment thread, reposted here as this is the most appropriate place for it)

Hi everybody, longtime Caps fan and longtime lurker on Japers Rink, my favorite blog on the planet. Bear with me here, I’ve got a lot to say and need to get something off my chest here. Every day I’m hearing more rhetoric about how the Caps are changing their identity and adopting a more “playoff style of hockey.” I think that’s BS. And what really set me off was a comment on Saturday by “HateOffSeason,” who I’m sure is a wonderful person, but I think it’s so full of just plain wrong truisms about hockey and the Caps that I gotta respond:

“Seems like the media is putting the cart before the horse on the change in play style for the Caps. IIRC, the Caps were absolutely woeful at scoring with the old high scoring system this year, and in the middle of an 8 game losing streak made the changes to a more defensive system. In a way, it was perfect timing. Many think that the Caps were never going to win in the post season without playing a more defensive grinding game, and with the old way not working in the regular season, it was the perfect time to switch systems and get player buy-in from the get go. But lets not confuse the timing of that change and try to pretend that the Caps were blowing teams out of the building and suddenly decided to stop. They were playing horribly and desperately needed to make some changes.”

Hoo boy, where to begin. The Capitals record through the first 26 games: 18-6-2, a pace for 120 points. Last year, they had 121 points. They scored 88 goals in those 26 games, a pace of 277 goals for the season: fewer than the 318 they posted last year, but that still would’ve been tops in the NHL last year. Goals allowed through 26 games: 69, a pace to allow 217 goals, 16 goals fewer than last year (233 goals allowed). The goal differential, had the Caps kept up the pace, would’ve been 60. Only the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks topped that last year (62). That’s a damn good start to the season. And considering that the 14-game win streak last year is what really put them into that 120+ point range, and that took place later in the season, the Caps this year got off to an even HOTTER start than last year. Through 26 games in 2009-10, the Caps were 15-5-6 (on pace for 113 points).

Here’s the Caps record in the 40 games after the losing streak began: 18-14-8 (or, really, 18-22), 88 goals scored, 97 allowed. If we want to be generous and not include the losing streak, we’re still looking at an 18-14 record. This is not playoff hockey. To paraphrase Charlie Sheen, playoff hockey is ****ing WINNING. Scoring more goals than the other team. That sort of thing. No one was better at that than the Capitals.

And so I ask you all the question: Is it really worth panicking and blowing up the team’s very identity over a difficult stretch more than four months before the playoffs even start? I can hear some of you now. The Caps weren’t playing playoff hockey! They weren’t grinding!

True, the past three playoffs have been a disappointment. But let’s not go crazy. The Caps lost their first series against the Flyers in a hard-fought seven-game series against two evenly matched opponents when the Caps were still finding their identity. Stuff happens. The next year, it was a first-round win against the Rangers and a bruising battle with the eventual Stanley Cup champs. Understandable. And then there was last year when everyone lost their minds. Yes, you shouldn’t lose to a #8 seed under any circumstances. But this is the NHL, not the NBA. Do you know how often the #8 seed beats the #1 seed? Since 1994, when the NHL switched the current playoff format, this has happened nine times in 32 matchups. That’s 28.2%. Better than one out of every four times. Which means, on average, every other year a #8 seed beats a #1 seed in the first round. It’s downright common. Can you imagine that happening in the NBA? In hockey, there’s a lot more variance, a lot more luck, a lot more bad bounces that turn into goals, and a lot more bad bounces that get stopped by hot goaltenders. Any team can win it. So why are we freaking out about it happening once to the Caps? This is a sign they’re “not built for the playoffs”? What about the 1994 Detroit Red Wings, who got bounced in similar fashion and then won back-to-back Stanley Cups just a couple years later?

And that brings me to the most maddening assertion of all, that defense wins championships. Let me just say right here that defense doesn’t win championships. Offense and defense wins championships. Outstanding defenses and OK offenses win championships, and outstanding offenses with OK defenses win championships. I don’t know where this truism that “defense wins championships” came from, but I suspect it comes from snobby sports columnists who like to spout contrarian opinions to suggest they have more insight than everyone else. It’s a dumb argument that makes no logical sense: defense and offense are two sides to the same coin. It doesn’t bear out in reality either. Here are the last 10 Stanley Cup champions and their offensive and defensive rankings in the regular season:

2010 – Blackhawks – O:#3, D:#5
2009 – Penguins – O:#6, D:#17
2008 – Red Wings – O:#3, D:#1
2007 – Ducks – O:#8, D:#7
2006 – Hurricanes – O:#3, D:#19
2004 – Lightning – O:#3, D:#10
2003 – Devils – O:#14, D:#1
2002 – Red Wings – O:#2, D:#3
2001 – Avalanche – O:#4, D:#3
2000 – Devils – O:#1, D:#5

D is pretty important. Was it essential for the Penguins, Hurricanes and Lightning? Not really. Meanwhile, the Devils were the only ones to pull off a Stanley Cup victory without a Top-8 offense. Let’s take a look at the Caps rankings in the last four years:

07-08 – O:#8, D:#18
08-09 – O:#3, D:#19
09-10 – O:#1, D:#16
10-11 – O:#19, D:#5

Are you going to look at these rankings, and then look at the Stanley Cup champion rankings above, and still insist to me that the Caps are now playing “playoff hockey”?

I hope the Caps find their offensive legs again despite this gross error by Boudreau. Otherwise, I worry we’re going to continue to go through this every April when it’s really not necessary.

If this FanPost is written by someone other than one of the blog's editors, the opinions expressed in it do not necessarily reflect those of this blog or SB Nation.

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