Roughly six weeks have passed since the Washington Capitals began playing as members of the Metropolitan Division. Featuring teams from the old Atlantic Division and now-defunct Southeast Division, it was projected in the offseason to be one of the NHL’s stronger divisions.
Nothing could be further from the truth, as the Metropolitan Division has failed to meet expectations. It is more than mediocre — it is the weakest of the league’s four divisions. Its leader, the Pittsburgh Penguins, currently have 26 points. The Caps trail by one point, with the New York Rangers’ 20 points claiming a somewhat-distant third. If any of these teams were playing in the Western Conference, their respective point counts would remove them from playoff contention.
But is that a bad thing, especially in the long term? In recent years, the Capitals coasted through the Southeast Division. They frequently faced opponents like the lowly Florida Panthers and middling Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets. The subpar quality of the Southeast competition helped them to five division titles in six years. However, without the constant pressure of taking on better teams, the Caps could and would at times grow dangerously comfortable.
When the Capitals played their best hockey consistently, they were constantly challenged by competitive teams. Their 2009-10 season was one of the most memorable in history of the franchise, as Washington captured its first Presidents’ Trophy and was the number-one seed in the East. Throughout the season, the Caps dominated their division rivals and played every team ferociously. Expectations were high, and rightfully so.
Then came the great collapse in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After dropping their first game of the series to the underdog Montreal Canadiens, the Capitals led the series 3-1. They were eliminated in Game 7 on home ice.
Did the Caps fall apart, or did the Habs adapt to defeat them? Washington’s regular-season performance was clearly not a fluke, nor were the Habs a particularly strong team. However, the latter advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals before falling to the Philadelphia Flyers in five games.
What set the Habs apart from the Caps? It’s likely that quality of competition in their respective divisions played a role. Yes, Washington dominated all teams during the regular season. They obviously faced their division rivals on a regular basis and were successful, as they won 19 of their 23 Southeast matchups.
This year, the Capitals have played 21 games thus far, with six taking place against various Metropolitan Division teams. They have won five, although they are narrowly in second place behind the Pens. A pattern is forming. The Caps play in a weak division, play well in the regular season, and fail to advance past the second round in the postseason. It’s a vicious cycle and one every Caps fan is all too familiar with.
While it is early to make predictions of this nature, it’s also safe to say that the Metropolitan Division does not boast many serious Cup contenders. The Western Conference is currently dominating its Eastern counterpart, and as we know, the Caps will face Eastern teams — weaker competition — more than the stronger Western teams. Even playing in the Atlantic Division would be something of a wake-up call: the Caps cannot cruise by. After all, had they not secured the Southeast Division last season, it’s likely they would have missed the playoffs altogether. And when they did make the postseason, they were the number three seed in the East. They gradually collapsed as the series went by, and the Rangers routed them in Game 7 — on home ice, no less.
That’s not to say the Washington Capitals are a mediocre team. They’ve proven themselves in the past and continue to do so, but one crucial question remains. Can this team make a deep playoff run and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, if not the Stanley Cup Finals? There’s no magic formula for producing a Stanley Cup-winning team, but quality of competition does play a role in readying a team for the playoffs. One can’t help but wonder if playing strong teams more often just might whip the Caps into shape.