That shiny Presidents’ Trophy the Capitals captured last season raised the expectations around these parts, and justifiably so. The franchise wasn’t just satisfied with making the playoffs as it admittedly was in 2008, and this season has been no different.
Just don’t ask owner Ted Leonsis if it’s “Stanley Cup or bust” this spring.
“Yeah, I was a little offended – I didn’t even understand the question – someone was saying ‘Stanley Cup or bust.’ But that’s like the 800-pound gorilla and it’s like Pulitzer Prize or bust,” Leonsis told The Times last week. “And there’s really no good, right answer for that. Every team starts the year wanting to win the Stanley Cup. Some teams feel they’ve worked hard and they’ve built a team that can compete, and so when they don’t, they feel disappointed.
“There’s been some years that – the first year we made the playoffs, we lost in the first round in Game 7, I was pretty happy. But our expectations are that this team is coming into its prime, it should do better in the playoffs. And so that’s what we’re gearing up for.”
The Caps’ owner has said in the past his plan was to build a team that’s “generationally great” – one that can make the playoffs and contend for a Cup for 10 or 12 years. He was asked if that plan would change if the goal of winning a Cup or reaching the Finals wasn’t met this year or soon and then mentioned the “Stanley Cup or bust” premise.
About that plan, Leonsis said the Caps are “on pace.” But he understands that even the best planning doesn’t often lead to success.
“I think, I hope, I believe we’re doing the right thing, but that’s the great thing about sports – we can get swept in the first round in four games. We could go all the way, this year. I don’t know,” he said. “You don’t know. Our fans don’t know. That’s why they play the games and all we can do is orchestrate it so that the team has upside and can make the playoffs every year. And I think we’re delivering on that.”
In other words, don’t expect TNT to arrive at Kettler and Verizon Center to blow it all up and start over if there isn’t a parade this June. That’s because “it’s hard” to win a championship – one shot off a post or one tripping call can change the course of a season. (Heck, imagine if the Rangers make the playoffs last season instead of the Flyers).
“Skill, luck, I don’t know what it is – but it’s kind of a random occurrence when pucks hit, go in and go out,” Leonsis said. “You have officiating. … There’s not many businesses where you have somebody in your room while you’re working making a decision that’s that binary to your success and failure. It’s this weird crucible to try to figure out how to keep the team healthy, how to work the refs, how to have enough talent.”
The Caps certainly think the talent is there. To Bruce Boudreau, it’s been there all along. When a national reporter wondered after Tuesday night’s shootout victory over the Flyers if the coach was “marveling” at the fact that his team was within a point of first place in the Eastern Conference after struggles this season.
“December 1 we were first overall, so I’m not marveling,” he said, rubbed the wrong way by the question. “We had an eight-game stretch where we lost, but I bet you don’t know how we lost or the number of one-goal games that we lost or the number of games we outplayed the other team.
“You guys are just reading it and say we lost and we’re falling apart. I kept trying to tell people, ‘We’re having a down turn.’ But I think Philly’s gone through a down turn – they’ve gone through 10-game stretches where they’ve only won two games as well – as has Detroit, as has every team maybe except for Vancouver this year. That doesn’t marvel at me. I knew that we would be playing good and that we’d be fighting right to the end.”