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Posted at 2:11 PM ET, 01/18/2011

Why the Caps need to win the division

By Kareem El-Alaily

At the start of the season I thought the Caps were a 110-point team who would play at last year’s level and only see a decline in their point totals from last season because of an improved Southeast division. Well, things haven’t exactly gone to plan, leaving our beloved team stuck on a 102-point pace. Ultimately, I believe 105 points will clinch the Southeast, that Tampa will run out of steam in the last third of the season and that the Caps will right the ship just enough to get to 105 and win the division.

Or so I hope.

For those of you who still harbor dreams of Stanley Cup parades in D.C. this summer it’s imperative that we win the division this year because teams that do not finish in the top four in their conference do not win Stanley Cups. Since the NHL went to the conference playoff seeding format in 1994-95, only one team seeded lower than fourth won the Cup, and that was fifth-seeded New Jersey in 1995, an odd strike-shortened season with teams only playing 48 games. Additionally, no team seeded sixth or lower has ever won the Cup. Basically, a team has very low odds to host a June parade if they don’t finish in the top four in the conference.

There is the “Just Make the Playoffs” contingent that believes that regular season performance isn’t all that important based on last year’s flukish Flyers-Canadiens semifinal matchup, where both the seventh- and eighth-seeded team made it to the conference finals. Those same folks will also point out that Buffalo made it to the Finals in 1999 as a seventh seed, Anaheim made it to the Finals in 2003 as a seventh seed, and Calgary made it to the finals in 2004 as a sixth seed. They’re right, but it’s not a path the Caps necessarily want to follow. Only 20 percent of 5-8 seeds have made it to the Finals since 1995. In other words, it’s a once-every-five years phenomenon within each conference. Additionally, two of those teams (Philadelphia and Anaheim) got “lucky” in that there were so many upsets that playoff year that they managed to play at least one series against a team seeded No. 5-8. So while it’s possible the Caps can follow such a path if they don’t win the division or sneak into the fourth spot, the odds are considerably against them making a run to the Finals.

There’s also that luck thingy the Caps would need if they enter the playoffs as a low seed. Considering the team’s history does anyone really want to bank on the Washington Capitals getting lucky in the playoffs? This franchise has seen its fair share of the flukish and the freakish, and with the exception of 1998, those events tend to go overwhelmingly against the team.

The takeaway: Finish in the top four or else we’re putting our faith in the hockey gods working their magic on the Caps behalf.

A few more comments:

  • Bruce has received some criticism lately with his shuffling of defensive pairs, as Scott Hannan, John Erskine, Mike Green and Jeff Schultz have been routinely shuffled among one another. Only the John Carlson and Karl Alzner duo seems to remain intact on a consistent basis. The shuffling won’t get any easier when Tom Poti gets healthy. That said, I’m not against Bruce’s mixing-and-matching of defensemen. You’ve got to build comfort and chemistry between defenseman and now is the time to experiment and figure which pairs work best so that you can put your best foot (or skate) forward for the stretch run. You’d hate to get into a situation where the playoffs come around, an injury happens and you have to pair two defensemen with little experience together.
  • Former Caps beat reporter for the Washington Times and CSN contributor Corey Masisak is leaving the Caps beat to go work for He will be missed. Corey had the daunting task of replacing the legendary Caps beat writer Dave Fay four years ago at the Times and did a more-than-admirable job. The D.C. market has always been treated to good beat reporters for the Caps and Corey was no exception. But beat reporters are paid to be journalists and report the facts, not give opinions. Part of me would have loved to see Corey put on a “columnist” hat every once in a while and give his true opinion on the state of the Caps.
  • Two months ago I posted a blurb about how I thought the Caps penalty killing would regress to the mean, as the season’s hot start was fueled by above average goaltending, not a better penalty kill. Looking back I was wrong -- the PK is indeed better. The penalty killers have reduced shots allowed from last year and shorthanded goaltending remains above average. That’s why they stand at fifth in PK this year, up from 26th last year. Happy to be wrong here.
  • It’s been a few months since I posted anything related to local college hockey. While Liberty (D1) is still the best team in the DMV, their path to a national championship in ACHA Division 1 is pretty rocky, as they are currently ranked No. 15 in the country. It’s UMBC that has the best shot of winning a national championship, as they sit at No. 2 in the Southeast Region of ACHA Division 2. Virginia Tech, Liberty (D2 team) and Maryland all look poised to gain berths in the Southeastern playoffs as long as they stay in the top 10. Solid year all around for the DMV at the college level.

By Kareem El-Alaily  | January 18, 2011; 2:11 PM ET
Categories:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  | Tags:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  
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I disagree with the opinion that they NEED to win the division, but whatever. Being challenged within the division is more important to me, as having 24 games that the Caps actually have to try to win can only help them.

Having said that, I certainly don't want to see them at the bottom 4 of the seeding.

Posted by: GFisher1 | January 18, 2011 3:00 PM | Report abuse

You've kind this kind of backwards (or sideways, or something).

The Caps don't NEED to win the division. But if they're not good enough to win the division, then obviously they're that much less likely to be good enough to win the Cup.

Posted by: spunkydawg1 | January 18, 2011 10:00 PM | Report abuse

*You've GOT this kind of backwards*

Posted by: spunkydawg1 | January 18, 2011 10:02 PM | Report abuse

I'd rather have the Caps finish below 4th and get hot in the playoffs than get hot now and fail again in the playoffs. Sometimes things have a way of evening out and I'd like to see the Cap play playoff hockey.

Posted by: cjride | January 18, 2011 10:14 PM | Report abuse

You told us in the first paragraph that you were wrong about how the season would go. Why should we think you know any better now?

Posted by: jfwil | January 19, 2011 5:48 AM | Report abuse

If the Caps are worthy, does it matter? They are underachievers, perhaps a tougher road will provide some inspiration.

Posted by: kieran2001 | January 19, 2011 7:35 AM | Report abuse

Regardless if they win the division or not, there is a very good chance the Caps get bounced out again in the first round. "Underachievers" comes to mind. This team does not have the mental or physical toughness to go far in the playoffs.

Posted by: ecjmom | January 19, 2011 10:59 AM | Report abuse

I generally agree with your premise and if I had to bet, I'd bet that the Caps will overtake the Bolts. While Tampa (and Atlanta) are scoring at a significantly higher rate than the Caps, both teams give up well over 3 goals per game. Sound familiar?

The reason I believe a two, three or four seed is a must for the Caps rests in the Atlantic Division. Watch the Rangers. By playoff time, I believe they will be a team that no one wants to see in an early round series. They currently sit in the seventh seed playoff slot; however, their GAA is a respectable 2.44 with a +17 differential. And, the Rangers score at nearly the same rate as the Caps. It seems to me the Rangers could end up being the Habs of the 2011 playoffs.

Posted by: prestoj | January 19, 2011 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Stop writing. You're not good at it.

Posted by: jeadpt | January 19, 2011 1:49 PM | Report abuse

It's a solid argument, the #'s state top 4 teams do better then bottom 4. And if we finish 4th we'll have to play pitt or philly in the first round? That's not good for this team -right now.

@jeadpt - stop posting you offer nothing.

Posted by: goskinsgo | January 19, 2011 4:51 PM | Report abuse

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