Tuesday, 10 May 2016

The Presidents' Trophy Strikes Again

Since 1986, the NHL awards the top team in the regular season with the Presidents' Trophy. It's almost a foregone conclusion that if a team wins the Presidents' Trophy, they won't win the Stanley Cup. In fact, in the thirty years that the Presidents' Trophy has been awarded to the best team in the regular season, that team has only won the Stanley Cup eight times. That's just a 26.7% winning percentage for the best team through 82 games, and it's part of the reason why the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy in sports to win. Besides having the best winning percentage through the regular season, that team needs to add at least four win in seven attempts in four additional rounds. It's clearly not as easy as it sounds.

Pittsburgh needed six games to dispatch the Washington Capitals who were this season's best squad. In several of the games, Pittsburgh was far and away the better team on the ice in all three zones. That's not to say that Washington didn't have their chances, but they ran into a hot goalie in Matt Murray, ran into a team that rolled four lines and got contributions from each of them, and squared off against a team that had one of the best second halves of the season in the NHL.

In the end, Washington simply couldn't overcome these factors.

Give full credit to Mike Sullivan, the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, as he replaced the flailing Mike Johnston midway through the season and implemented a defensive system that made players accountable. He turned that accountability into allowing the skilled players to make plays and generate turnovers where the Penguins could capitalize. The Penguins team that eliminated the Capitals was a far different one than the Penguins squad seen at the start of this season.

Perhaps most surprising in this series was the play of Pittsburgh's new second line in Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel. This line, since being cobbled together following an injury to Evgeni Malkin in the regular season, has been nothing short of spectacular, and Phil Kessel is looking every bit the $8 million man that Pittsburgh thought they were getting in the trade with Toronto. With a solid second line, a third line consisting of Chris Kunitz, Malkin, and Eric Fehr, and a top line that has Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, and Connor Sheary, this Penguins team has the depth to match up with most teams.

For Washington, this setback shouldn't be looked at as a blowing up point. This team is built to win, and there have been many examples of teams in a similar situation that have lost before reaching the Holy Grail. Make no mistake that this is a disappointing end to the season for the Capitals, but we need to be honest in saying that they have an elite goaltender, a solid blue line, and a collection of forwards that make most GMs jealous. This team will have its day in the sun, but it just won't be this season.

If there was one moment where momentum could have swung widely, it was in overtime when a pesky Washington forward named Jay Beagle made the save of the series.
That is simply outstanding hand-eye coordination to be able to swat that puck out of the yawning cage when it's 18-inches off the ice! Despite Beagle's series-saving netminding at that point, the momentum didn't shift too dramatically, and the Penguins ended the series some four minutes later off a Nick Bonino goal. Game, set, match for the Washington Capitals.

For those expecting me to heap blame on one of Alexander Ovechkin, Brooks Orpik, or any other Capital, you're in the wrong place. I don't think any one player contributed to Washington's loss that were wearing red-white-and-blue. Instead, the guys in yellow and black were up to the challenge in this series, and they outplayed the regular season's best team.

Tampa Bay will visit Pittsburgh on Friday evening for the start of the Eastern Conference Final. The Washington Capitals will go home, regroup, and come back just as strong as next season. They'll learn from this setback, and reset their sights on postseason success as the next step. Consider that a warning for the NHL for next season.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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