Fans of the Washington Capitals are a curious lot. Perhaps it is due to ongoing disappointment -- measured in not just seasons or games but in decades -- but when the Caps lose, or even if they do not look quite good enough when winning to pass muster, fans seem prone to ask if it means this is the end of the good times the club has enjoyed so far this season.
The focus is generally on the Caps' ability to compete against the best the League has to offer. If they lose to the Florida Panthers, is this a signal of losing ground to the Panthers in the standings or another disappointing playoff exit should they meet in the post season? If they lose to the Dallas Stars, is it a sign that the Caps will not be able to compete with the big boys from the West should they reach the finals?
One way to look at this is by examining the Caps' record against the League's best. Using an arbitrary definition of "best," we limit this examination to teams that have won at least 30 games this season. The Caps are still the only team to reach the 40-win mark this season, but there are ten other teams that meet the threshold (through Tuesday's games).
So, if you are a "bottom line" sort of reader, you might want to go right there and ask, what is the Caps' record against this upmost third of the league this season, and how does it compare to those other teams in the "Elite Eleven?" It might surprise you to know (then again, it might not, given that the Caps are 41-10-4) that the Capitals do quite well in this peer group:
The Caps have more wins and more points than any other team in this "league within a league." What is more, the losses have a certain character to them. Having lost a pair to the Florida Panthers (in three decisions) and a pair to the Dallas Stars, the Caps have an otherwise 12-2-0 record against the other eight teams. And the two losses to the Stars were both of the one-goal variety, not the stuff of dominance. Those losses to Florida are unsettling, though, both of which came in three-goal decisions (one in December, the other to open the February schedule).
Sometimes, even for teams with as gaudy a record as the Caps, there is a team that just plays them very tough, and at the moment that team would appear to be the Panthers.
The Caps' dominance in the standings in this mini-league is a product of how well they have done against the better teams in the East:
No team is closer than three wins behind them. If there is something noteworthy about the records overall against teams in the East, it is that the teams from West figure as high as they do in the standings despite many fewer games played. It suggests a stronger Western Conference, something that has been a consensus view about the league for a few seasons now.
Against the West, the Caps have not fared especially well, but part of this is that only one team - the Boston Bruins - has played fewer games against Western Conference opponents (four) than the Capitals (five).
Small sample size or not, however, that 2-3-0 record for Washington with five of their final 27 games against the Western Conference's "best" teams bears watching.
Nevertheless, for those who see doom with each infrequent loss by the Caps, take some comfort that it happens, even to the best of teams. And when playing the best this season, the Caps' overall record does not diminish the fact that they are one of the best teams, if not the best team, in the League.