(photo by Brian Murphy)
When you set the bar low, it’s much easier to step over it.
That’s all I can think as the Washington Capitals head into their final five games of the 2013 season.
Now, for those D.C. sports fans who aren’t familiar with my body of work, I’m someone who considers myself a pessimist by nature. I’m the type of person who tends to expect the worst at all possible times, which enables me to be pleasantly surprised if/when things end up better than I anticipated.
That’s why I’m absolutely convinced this season will only end in utter heartbreak and disappointment for the Washington Nationals, who have been picked by anyone and everyone to win the World Series this season.
Until last season, the Nats had never even posted a winning record since coming to town and now, all of the sudden, they’re expected to be the best team in baseball simply because the roster looks pretty robust on paper.
Never mind the fact that this franchise has never had to face any sort of expectations before. Or that the vast majority of the players in that locker room haven’t had to take the field 162 times in a year with a huge bull’s-eye on their back. Or that one unfortunate injury to a cornerstone player like Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper could be enough to completely ruin an otherwise promising campaign.
The Nationals must now win because they’re the trendy pick by the so-called experts.
Now, if this season ends in anything other than a victory parade in our nation’s capital, then Davey Johnson’s final season with the Nats will be remembered as a letdown. And that blows.
The Capitals, you might recall, started the 2013 season on the completely other side of the spectrum. They took to the ice for a lockout shortened season with their third coach in 18 months – and while Adam Oates might have been a Hall of Famer as a player, he took the job with exactly zero experience running his own franchise.
And thanks to a prolonged pissing contest between the NHL owners and players, Oates basically had a week to teach the Capitals players his system and expectations.
After the highs of the firewagon hockey Bruce Boudreau era and the lows of the “creativity (and offense in general) is overrated” Dale Hunter era, Oates inherited a fragile franchise. His core players – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green – were once considered some of the best players in all of hockey.
But by the time Oates came to town, they were mostly known for underachieving, injury concerns and bloated contracts. For these reasons and more, I cautioned local sports fans to temper their expectations before the season even began.
And then the Capitals limped out of the gate with a pathetic 2-8-1 record and suddenly it wasn’t unreasonable to wonder if the window had officially closed on the “Rock the Red” era.
Except a funny thing happened while everyone was grabbing their shovels and rushing to bury Ovechkin and friends – the Caps started to play solid hockey once again.
Sure, they weren’t scoring five or six goals a night anymore like they once did under a coach named Gabby, but they were more defensively responsible and players made smarter decisions with the puck on a regular basis.
And mercifully, the players were actually encouraged by their first-time coach to participate in a healthy dialog throughout the season, as opposed to Hunter, whose preferred method of leadership involved the silent treatment and jerking around playing time with reckless abandon.
Oates quickly established himself as firm, but fair. While he was known as prickly and difficult to deal with during his playing days in Washington, he has shown no diva tendencies since landing his first coaching gig.
In related news, the Capitals are 22-9-1 since their horrific start and have once again made hockey worth watching in Washington.
Ovechkin, who was essentially a piñata for the local and national media in recent seasons as his production rapidly declined, once again resembles the player who was rightly anointed the face of the franchise the day he arrived from Russia (with love).
Because Oates was able to convince Ovechkin his game was in dire need of a change, the newly-converted right wing has re-inserted himself into the NHL’s most valuable player discussion. With 28 goals (tops in the league) and 48 points (fourth best in hockey), hockey fans are once again talking about The Great 8 for his heroics on the ice, rather than dwelling on his 13-year, $124-million deal.
While this season’s journey has been magical and completely unexpected, I can’t help but worry that the team’s resurgence – and their current eight-game winning streak in particular – has once again placed unreasonable expectations on a franchise that has historically been defined by playoff failures and postseason disappointments.
With everything looking so bleak as recently as February, I’m simply happy to see the Capitals turn things around to the point where they’re no longer an embarrassment.
Let’s not forget that just two weeks ago, more than a few skeptics lobbied the Capitals to unload veteran players at the trade deadline in an effort to restock the roster for another run a year or two down the line. Now, they’re the hottest team in hockey and it appears people are already convinced an extended playoff run is a foregone conclusion.
And isn’t that where things always go wrong with the Capitals? They head into the playoffs with all of the momentum in the world and are routinely tabbed as a trendy pick to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals … right up until the run into a “hot goalie” or any other sort of adversity.
And then it’s all over in the blink of an eye and Caps fans are abruptly left trying to recover from a stomach punch they never saw coming.
So let’s try something different this time around. Rather than believing the hype and rushing to anoint the Capitals as this year’s Los Angeles Kings or any other Cinderella story, let’s all just agree to proceed with cautious optimism.
Let’s all lower our expectations for a team still gaining much-needed experience in Oates’ system and simply enjoy the ride. Don’t set yourself up for failure and heartache. Don’t allow yourself to daydream about Ovechkin raising the Cup. Don’t just assume that whichever team is paired up with the Capitals in the opening round of the playoffs is automatically going to roll over and play dead.
In short, don’t get fooled again. Simply set the bar low and enjoy the ride.