Wednesday, January 03, 2007

From Champagne to Golf in 2 Seconds Flat

The problem with being a team on the cusp is that everyone starts overanalyzing every game, every home stretch, every injury. Each game is a must-win, each player a key component to the team's success or failure.

But how do you predict the outcome of a sport that can be downright unpredictable?

Take, for example, the stretch of games between the end of November and beginning of December. Everyone saw the teams that were coming up, division and conference leaders, teams consistently at the top of the standings. We watched the Caps drop 6 straight games to teams hovering around that 8th spot (and some below). And there was doom and gloom aplenty in Caps nation at the mere thought of the outcome.

But then they did something nobody expected - they started winning. They went on a miniature tear, posting a record of 7-1-1 over 9 games and beating those monoliths that had made us shudder in fear only a week before. All of a sudden we weren't just seeing a potential playoff berth - we were mentally pre-ordering playoff tickets, setting our Tivo, and getting out those pom-poms for a glorious playoff run.

Then, just as quickly as the euphoria hit it went away. They've dropped 6 of their last 7 games. Guys are injured. Guys are sick. Every day we're checking the Caps website only to see the fresh faces of the latest call-ups from Hershey. Those pre-ordered tickets are no longer for the they're for the Nationals' opening day.

Everyone was saying that if the Caps came away with any points during that Nov. 28-Dec. 8 stretch they would officially be a playoff-caliber team. Then everyone thought their playoff hopes hinged on their performance in back to back to back to back games last week. Well, we've seen the results...what's the verdict?

There are more factors at play here, more things to consider than just how they perform during a set period of time, more than just wins and losses.

Take for example the 4-game winning streak. While I'm not arguing the tremendous effort the Caps showed to put together four wins against tough teams, let's be honest - scheduling helped a bit, as each team they beat was playing the second game in as many nights; the Caps were well rested. Injuries helped a bit, with some of the teams coming in with some key players out of the lineup; the Caps were healthy.

Now look at this recent stretch of bad luck - 5 straight and 6 of their last 7 in the loss column, mostly against teams that are hovering around the same level as the Caps. Four regulars out of the lineup with long-term injuries, another with serious illness, and 8 more either scratched or slowed by the most bizarre rash of stomach flu. A scheduling nightmare that had the Caps playing 4 games in 4 different cities, in only 5 nights. They lost but played well under circumstances that would hinder the deepest of teams...and let's face it, this ain't the deepest of teams.

So if the pundits and fans are correct, the Caps have made the playoffs and missed the playoffs all at the same time - and all in the span of 41 games. Pretty impressive, huh?

My point (and I do have one) is that nobody knows a darn thing.

This conference is going to continue to be tight down to the wire - teams get hot, teams slump, and none of them at the same time. The Caps have bounced from 11th to 6th and back, all in the span of about 3 weeks. It's not the first time and it certainly won't be the last.

Sure, they need to snap out of this funk sooner rather than later. Every two points they don't earn is another missed opportunity to close the gap. But there are 14 other teams in the conference and 4 other teams in the division - and they all have to win their games, too. We have 42 games left on the schedule, and the Caps have a decent shot at a win in all of them. We'll have the joy of watching Ovechkin play in his first All-Star Game (even if it is next to the gruesome twosome, Crosby and Briere). We'll have the excitement of seeing our team defy expectations for another 4 months.

If they make the playoffs, I'll be ecstatic. This blog will literally explode with excitement.

If they don't, well, they weren't supposed to anyways. The core of a championship team is there, though, and they'll get to the postseason soon enough.

Bottom line? We'll get our answers as we wind down the road - for now, let's just try and enjoy the ride.

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