Last night the Caps returned from a season-long five-game road trip to face their rivals from New York, looking for just one thing: a single standings point. That was all that stood between them and guaranteeing their top spot in the standings. They got that and more, picking up a hard-fought win over a depleted but still Henrik Lundqvist-backed Rangers team – and in doing so, locked up both the Division and the League title, for a second-straight season.
The celebration after the game was as it has been after most games this season; some smiles, some hugs and high fives, but mostly business as usual. On to the next game. This team has bigger goals than what they accomplished last night, and everyone knows it.
And yet as always, it’s important to take just a moment to appreciate what we’ve been privileged enough to witness this season – because it’s not something every fan sees, and it is still worth celebrating.
The fact that the Caps have made a habit of putting together strong regular seasons, only to falter in the playoffs, could cause even the most optimistic fan to brush something like this aside as if it’s meaningless. So could the fact that Presidents’ Trophy winners have “only” won the Cup a little over a quarter of the time since the NHL began awarding it about three decades ago (even though a one-in-four chance is still pretty high compared to the odds for the other 15 teams competing). And yes, the “raise another banner!” jokes from non-Caps fans can get really old really quickly.
Like, really quickly.
But you don’t get jokes made about banner-raising unless you do it on a regular basis, and the Caps have done just that. They have been an incredibly good team, fairly consistently, over the last decade. In the last ten years they’ve captured seven Division titles (a timeline that overlaps with the arrival of Nicklas Backstrom in DC, hardly a coincidence), finished first in the Conference four times and have now won the Presidents’ Trophy three times (including back-to-back seasons).
For some perspective, only two other franchises have won the Presidents’ Trophy three times since its inception back in 1985-86: the Detroit Red Wings (1994-95, 1995-96, 2001-02, 2003-04, 2005-06, 2007-08) and the New York Rangers (1991-92, 1993-94, 2014-15).
They’ve been even better over the past two seasons. Since the 2015-16 season, the Caps have won 13 more games than any other team, racking up 236 points and scoring 506 goals (second to only Pittsburgh’s 507) while giving up just 365 goals – fewest in the League. Braden Holtby has emerged as one of the NHL’s best goalies, Nicklas Backstrom has finally begun to achieve some level of League-wide respect and recognition (albeit still not enough), and Alex Ovechkin continues to be one of the most dominant goal-scorers in the history of the game.
It shouldn’t need to be said, but let’s go ahead and do so anyway: obviously this is not the only trophy the Caps want to win this year, nor should it be. But let’s not pretend it’s irrelevant (or even more insanely, “cursed”) just because it’s not the Stanley Cup. There is no free ticket, no sure thing and no easy path to the Cup. It is the hardest trophy to win in all of sports, and the best team does not always win it. That’s just the way it goes.
But that doesn’t mean that being the best team over an 82-game season is nothing – in fact it’s an incredible accomplishment. Perhaps some fans feel the only way they can be happy as a fan is to see their team win the Cup, but that seems like a pretty depressing way to enjoy something that, ultimately, is meant as entertainment. The journey should be part of the fun, even if it ends in heartbreak.
So enjoy it. Enjoy this moment, the day after the Caps accomplished something great, file it away and get ready for the postseason.
Kuznetsov on Prez Trophy: "If some guys going to say they don’t care, they're lying. It’s always nice to win something."— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) April 6, 2017
Because whether or not they win the Cup this year will come down to much more than pure skill, more than simply being a very good team. Luck, health, and the right match-ups all will play a role in determining whether this year culminates in a parade or another summer of unfinished business. The Caps have put themselves in a great position to win it all – now they just have to put the pieces together and hope the puck bounces their way in the coming weeks.
The captain, as always, said it best:
"It means we're best team in the [regular] season. But the most important season is coming soon.”