When the National Hockey League drops the puck on its 2020-21 season, it will be the fourth time in 26 seasons that the NHL will have played an abbreviated schedule. The upcoming season follows on the heels of the 2019-20 season that had its regular season suspended in March due to the COVID virus pandemic, the league ending its season with a dozen or so games (depending on the club) left in the schedule. The 2012-13 season got a late start due to a labor-management dispute and played a 48-game schedule that began in January 2013. And back in 1994-95, another labor-management dispute delayed the start of that season to January 1995, from which a 48-game schedule was filled.
It is the first of these four abbreviated seasons that has particular interest from a Washington Capitals perspective. What made this a strange season is that it was in a sense a tale of two teams. The Capitals and the New Jersey Devils played their respective schedules to identical 22-18-8 records, tied for second place in the Atlantic Division, each team eight points behind the Philadelphia Flyers.
The two clubs had almost identical scoring offense and scoring defense statistics, the teams tied at 136 goals scored and the Caps allowing one fewer goal (120) than the Devils (121). Washington had superior special teams on both sides of the puck, posting a 19.9 percent power play to 13.4 percent for New Jersey, while the Caps had a penalty kill of 84.6 percent to 81.2 percent for the Devils. The Caps were also a team that was better when scoring first (15-5-3/.652 to 15-5-5/.600 for New Jersey) and in holding a lead after two periods (17-0-1/.944 to 10-0-4/.714 for the Devils).
But (this was an era when there was always a “but” for the Caps), one team won the Stanley Cup, the other was eliminated in the first round. Needless to say, the Caps were not the team that won the Cup that season.
So, what gives? What set these two teams, so close in the regular season, apart when the playoffs came. Were there hints in the regular season? Neither team got out of the regular season gate quickly. New Jersey did not have a record over .500 (by standings points) until Game 33 of the regular season when they reached 14-13-6. And even having made it that far, they finished the regular season with a 9-5-2 record, a good one but hardly a dominating finishing kick. Washington did not crawl over the .500 mark until Game 29, when they had a record of 12-11-6. And their finish was nothing special either, a 10-7-2 record in their last 19 games.
However, there was something to be said about how the teams fared down the stretch. Over the last 16 games of the season, the last third of the schedule, the Devils had the best scoring defense in the league, allowing only 2.00 goals per game, almost a third of a goal per game fewer than the Chicago Blackhawks over the last third of their schedule (2.31).
In this category, the Caps were more a middle of the road team, ranking 10th among 26 teams in goals allowed per game (2.81). Caps fans might have been lulled to sleep by the 3.44 goals per game scored by the Caps (sixth in scoring offense over the last third of their schedule), especially when the Devils managed only 2.67 goals scored per game (20th).
But while the Devils faltered a bit in scoring defense at the very end of the regular season, their ability to smother opponents returned with a vengeance to open the playoffs. In their opening round matchup with the Boston Bruins, they got out to a 3-1 lead in games – all of the wins via shutout – before closing out the Bruins in the fifth game. What is more, the Devils trailed only 28:04 in the entire series, all of it in Game 3 when they suffered their only loss, a 3-2 decision.
The Caps opened the playoffs against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and while they had little trouble scoring over the first four games (20 goals), they did not have an airtight defense, allowing 13 goals. But they did post identical 6-2 wins in Games 3 and 4 in Washington to take a 3-1 lead in games. The Caps had the Penguins on the ropes in Game 5, taking a 2-0 lead in the first 16 minutes and then going on a power play late in the first period. But then, the roof fell in, their defensive flaws exposed. A shorthanded goal by Jaromir Jagr got the Penguins off the mat, and they went on to win this game, 6-5 in overtime, and outscored the Caps 16-6 over the last 167:00 of the series to win in seven games.
Meanwhile, after dispatching the Bruins in five games, the Devils steamrolled through the final three rounds, posting a 12-3 record and outscoring opponents, 53-29, over those 15 games. Only three times in those 15 games did they allow more than two goals. The noteworthy part of that was that the Devils suffered their three losses in those games while going 12-0 when allowing two or fewer goals over the last three rounds.
In the end…
Are there any lessons to be drawn from an abbreviated season 25 years ago as we look forward to the 2020-2021 season? Perhaps not, but here we had two teams with identical records, neither of which were top notch (they tied for ninth among 26 teams in standings points). Both started the season slowly and finished well, if not in dominating fashion. But while one went quick and quiet in the playoffs after they were on the brink of eliminating their opponent in the first round, the other did eliminate their first-round opponent and went on to dominate the remainder of the postseason.
One cannot say it was a product of favorable matchups. The Caps were 2-2-0 against Pittsburgh in the regular season, losing the first two games and winning the last two, while the Devils were just 1-3-0 against Boston and went to overtime to get their only win. The Caps beat the Pens twice in the last six games of the regular season, but the Devils did not face Boston over the last 20 games of the regular season.
By the time the 1994-95 season rolled around, both the Caps and Devils established themselves as reliable postseason participants, the Caps reaching the playoffs for the 13th consecutive season and the Devils getting there for sixth straight season and seventh in eight years. But the Caps, having once had the reputation as a strong defensive team, strayed from that formula, especially late in the 1994-95 season and then into the first round of the playoffs. On the other hand, the Devils were establishing an identity as a highly structured defensive squad that relied on systems and their faithful application more than individual talent.
Two teams with identical records reaching the playoffs lend credence to the thought that if you “just get in,” then anything can happen, good or bad as it turns out. But in getting there, perhaps you had better have a clear sense of what you are as a team and be faithful to that vision. That thought might transcend any era. Something to keep in mind with the short season ahead where there is not a lot of time to establish that identity.