There are only a handful of teams that have been considered contenders at the beginning of each of the last four seasons. Among them, only the San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals have yet to even make a Stanley Cup Finals appearance.
The parallels between the teams are stunning.
Typically, they struggle only once the regular season ends. This season, they struggled throughout.
Both had won their division and finished as a top-two seed for four years running. Both had at least one President's Trophy in that time.
This year, both are merely seventh seeds. Neither even secured a playoff spot until their 81st game had ended.
So which team was the bigger disappointment?
Truth be told, this cannot be answered until the playoffs are over. Since both teams have longed for postseason success, finishing low in the standings will mean nothing if they get deeper than they have before.
But neither team looks ready to contend for their conference. They are not shutdown defensive teams or elite scorers. They struggled in relatively mediocre divisions.
San Jose has not previously finished with fewer than 99 points or been lower than a fifth seed since 2003. This makes their season far below the level they have been at for a longer time than Washington.
They had the second-worst penalty kill in the league and allowed three more points than they earned in their division. They had just one shootout win in eight games against the top two seeds in the conference.
After making the conference finals the last two years, they bolstered their roster and at times looked like the team they were supposed to be. They had three 15-game stretches playing at least .700 hockey, but finished just 14 points over .500.
Besides being maddeningly inconsistent, including 16 games with just zero or one goal scored, they have been complacent with leads early in games, and constantly acknowledged after contests that they had lacked the urgency of their opponent.
There is nothing more frustrating than knowing the team you support did not play its best. However, Washington still may have performed worse.
The Capitals have not made it past the second round yet, and the play in their own end has been more at fault than their scoring. Thus, they brought in veteran help for the blue line and in net.
Yet by midseason, their coach was fired and star captain Alexander Ovechkin under fire for lackluster play. He finished with his worst plus-minus since his second season, fewer goals than any season but last and a whopping 19 fewer assists than his previous low.
The Caps were in the weakest division in the NHL, yet they dropped at least four out of five games four times during the season and finished four points behind San Jose in the standings.
One reason is they gave up eight more goals than they scored. They were 14th-ranked scoring and 21st defending. Their power play and penalty kill were in the bottom half of the league.
At least the Sharks are in the top-12 in scoring and eighth in goals against. They have the second-best power play and were best after the All-Star break. Yet while they are more equipped to go deep in the playoffs, their first-round foe is tougher on paper (and on the ice for the Sharks this season), as is their conference.
So while a case can be made for either team, San Jose's finish would have been good enough to win the weak Southeast Division. Washington would not have even made the playoffs in the Western Conference.
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