Before the rear ends of Washington Capitals fans were returning to their seats after the team's Game 7 victory against the Boston Bruins just weeks ago, the talking heads and pundits were warming up their vocal chords and clicking their pens, ready to shower superlatives on then-Capitals head coach Dale Hunter.
Terrible-coach-turned-terrible-pundit Barry Melrose predicted they'd win the East, saying: "Right now the Caps are playing great. I love the way they’re playing. The Caps are playing the type of hockey right now that can get them to the Finals, no doubt about it."
Derek Neumeier of The Hockey Writers called Hunter hockey the "best playoff hockey that Washington has seen since the lockout."
And yet, just a couple of weeks later, Dale Hunter ended up accomplishing something former coach Bruce Boudreau had already pulled off twice: a second-round playoff exit after a much-hyped offseason.
Almost immediately afterward, Hunter announced his resignation as head coach. Most likely, he hadn't planned on spending more than a season with the team to begin with. His decision mercifully spares Caps fans from a repeat of probably the worst season to watch as a fan yet: .500 during the season and .500 in the playoffs.
It was easy to trash Boudreau and the Caps' "run-and-gun" style of hockey after the Caps bombed against the lowly Canadiens in the first round two years ago and then were unceremoniously swept by the Lightning in the second round a year later, despite a dominant first round.
But let's be real: The NHL playoffs are a total crapshoot. In the NBA, a No. 8 seed has defeated a No. 1 seed in the playoffs only twice in a seven-game series in nearly 30 years.
Contrast that with the NHL, where since 1994 the No. 8 seed has beaten the top seed 10 times in just 36 matchups—28 percent—meaning a No. 1 seed goes down in the first round on average every other year. Heck, a No. 8 seed just won the Stanley Cup over a No. 6 seed.
And yet, every year, the vast majority of pundits do nothing but pick seeded favorites as if they haven't watched a day of hockey in their lives.
In 2010, analysts were lining up to pick the No. 2 seed New Jersey Devils over the No. 7 seed Philadelphia Flyers, despite the Flyers' 5-1 record against the Devils in the regular season. The Flyers took the series and the conference before falling to Chicago in the Finals.
The Caps have been terrible in the playoffs for five straight years—four with Boudreau. The first two were not a big deal. And then, the 2010 playoffs happened.
The Montreal Canadiens, finding themselves down 3-1 in the series to a dominant Caps team, suddenly insert goalie Jaroslav Halak, who somehow stopped 131 of 134 shots in the last three games for a gaudy save percentage of .978. Out in the first round.
The pundits turned their sights on Boudreau. “Defense wins championships,” they said, fingers a-waggin'.
Really? Does defense really win championships in the NHL? Well, let's see: Of the six champions prior to the Los Angeles Kings since the lockout, all of them finished eighth or better in goals scored during the regular season, whereas just four of them had a top-10 defense.
The reality is, in the NHL, good teams get bounced early, and some teams are unluckier than others. The only thing you can do is keep making it to the dance with as good a team as you can and hope that, someday, the hockey gods will be on your side.
That's what GM George McPhee should do this offseason: Instead of seeking a shortcut to a championship where none exists, get a coach who will let the stars shine. And then, hurry up and wait.
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