Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final will be played Saturday between the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning. The Capitals were in the Stanley Cup Final in 2018, but in each of the two seasons since have been ousted in the first round of the playoffs.
How did a Stanley Cup champion become a team that can't get out of the first round? What have they been missing? We can find the answers looking at the Stars and Lightning and how they got to this point.
Please note: All 2020 playoff stats I use do not include the round robin games.
I don't want to pile on Todd Reirden, he's a good guy and a great assistant coach. I wouldn't be surprised if he got another opportunity for a head-coaching job down the line, but the coaching the Caps got over the course of the season and in the playoffs just was not up to snuff.
Dallas fired head coach Jim Montgomery on Dec. 10 and Rick Bowness was named the interim head coach. Bowness had to navigate taking over in the regular season under bizarre circumstances, adjusting the system to fit his style but doing so in a way that would not overwhelm the players. He made more significant changes after the pause because the Stars were not scoring enough and so a Dallas team that scored only 2.58 goals per game in the regular season is now suddenly scoring 3.22 goals in the playoffs.
After a hot start, Washington had significant issues from Dec. 23 on through the rest of the regular season. All of those issues then seemed to follow the Caps to Toronto. One coach was able to keep the team treading water in the regular season and made significant tweaks after the pause to address team weaknesses, the other was not able to fix the team's problems in the regular season or through the pause.
Jon Cooper, meanwhile, had a tough task ahead of him after the Lightning were swept in the first round of the playoffs last season by the Columbus Blue Jackets. He was able to navigate the emotional hangover that followed the team into the regular season and had them surging as the season wore on. In the playoffs, Tampa Bay had a rematch against the Blue Jackets and beat them in five games.
Here's a comparison of the Caps' playoff stats in 2019 and 2020:
2019: 2.86 goals per game, 3.00 goals against per game, 25.0-percent power play, 88.0-percent penalty kill
2020: 1.60 goals per game, 3.40 goals against per game, 22.2-percent power play, 90.9-percent penalty kill
The only area in which the team improved was on the penalty kill. Overall, this team got much worse from 2019 to 2020. Considering the impact Bowness and Cooper have had with their respective teams, part of the blame for Washington's decline has to be laid at the feet of the coaches.
The Caps were a mess defensively and that typically does not bode well for playoff success. In the regular season, Dallas ranked second in the league defensively (2.52 goals against per game), while Tampa Bay ranked eighth (2.77). Washington fell to 18th with 3.07. That got worse in the postseason as the Caps allowed 3.40 goals per game, good for 13th out of 16 playoff teams. Not surprisingly, the six worst defenses in the playoffs were all eliminated in the first round.
In the playoffs, the Lightning are allowing only 2.13 goals per game. The Stars have allowed 3.00, but bear in mind they just played the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights in back-to-back series. I shudder to think what the Caps defense would have given up against those teams.
For those curious, the Caps allowed only 2.54 goals per game in the 2018 playoffs.
You hear every year going into the playoffs that championship teams need eight NHL defensemen. That blue line depth will be tested and you need NHL players you can plug into the lineup when injuries inevitably crop up. That's true, but you also need players you can trust offensively. While the Caps offense has plenty of skill in the top-six, the bottom-six and the depth are question marks.
Steven Stamkos, the captain of Tampa Bay and a superstar player, has not played a single game in the playoffs and the Lightning are in the Final. The Caps lost Nicklas Backstrom for three games and the team was a mess.
It is unreasonable to think a team will not be affected by injuries, but it's not just about the player you lose, it's about the player you put in to replace him. Travis Boyd played only 6:38 in Game 2 against the Islanders and that was as a third-line player. He was replaced by Brian Pinho for Game 3 and he played even less with 3:22. He got up to 8:11 in Game 4, but you get the point. One player was taken out of the offense, and suddenly Washington's depth was shot.
Let's not forget, in 2018, Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington was missing both Backstrom and Tom Wilson. The Caps' lone regulation goal was scored by Alex Chiasson and assisted by Nathan Walker. Devante Smith-Pelly scored seven goals that postseason. Lars Eller scored the overtime winner in Game 3 against Columbus to save the season and then scored the Cup-clinching goal against Vegas.
The Stars and Lightning have been getting similar contributions from their depth players. Joel Kiviranta scored a hat trick for the Stars including the overtime winner against Colorado in Game 7. That's three more goals than Washington's entire bottom-six scored in the 2020 playoffs.
Anton Khudobin was not the No. 1 for Dallas going into the postseason, it was Ben Bishop. After an injury to Bishop, Khudobin has played in all 18 of the Stars' playoff games and has been tremendous with a .920 save percentage. They could not have gotten this far without a viable second option between the pipes.
An injury to Ilya Samsonov forced Braden Holtby to be the No. 1 again for Washington and, though he was much better than he looked in the regular season, he still struggled. Game 1 was particularly bad as two bad goals allowed New York to rally back from a 2-0 deficit.
I don't know if the results would have been different had Samsonov come with the Caps to Toronto, but the Caps would have at least had the option of making a goalie change. What I do know is that the Stars would have been screwed without a dependable goalie as their No. 2.
But wait, Andrei Vasilevskiy has played in every game for the Lightning. Doesn't that disprove the need for a No. 2? Actually, no, not for the Caps.
In his first NHL season, Vasilevskiy played only 16 games behind, ironically enough, Bishop in Tampa Bay. Vasilevskiy played only 24 games in his next season before taking over as the No. 1 and even then he had only 47 starts. Vasilevskiy got some playoff experience as well, playing in four games as a rookie in 2015 and eight in 2016 as Bishop remained the No. 1.
Samsonov will take over as the No. 1 in Washington in the 2020-21 season, but he has only 26 career starts through one season. While Dallas shows the importance of having that trustworthy second option, Tampa Bay shows the benefits of not giving a goalie too much responsibility too soon.
Adaptability to different styles of play
The Caps went down 3-0 in the series to the Islanders before they finally were able to draw blood with a win in Game 4. Following the win, did the team talk about all the adjustments made? Did the team talk about finally adapting to how their opposition wanted to play? Nope.
Instead, Reirden said, "We started to impose our will a little bit."
Impose your will? Washington lost the first three games because they couldn't impose their will. The plan to get back into the series was to keep the same gameplan and keep trying to force the Islanders to play how Washington wanted. At some point, you have to be able to win games in different ways rather than trying to force every game to be played by your style, especially when coming up against a New York team that sticks to its style as well as the Islanders do.
Tampa Bay has more skill on its roster than any team in the NHL. The only team the really comes close is Colorado. In 2018, the Caps physically beat the stuffing out of the Lightning for two games to come back from a 3-2 series deficit and win the Eastern Conference. The following year, Tampa Bay tried to send a message to the Caps every time they played to show them how physical they could be, but there's a difference between having guys who can hit and fight and using physicality to win hockey games. That's what Tampa Bay did not understand. When Columbus made things uncomfortable for them in the playoffs in 2019 and would not allow the Lightning to play a wide-open, offensive series, Tampa Bay collapsed in a four-game sweep. That was different in 2020. In the first-round rematch, the Lighting handled Columbus in just five games. Tampa Bay was able to go toe-to-toe with Columbus physically and won a grind-it-out series earning each of its four wins in one-goal games including two overtime victories.
Every team needs an identity and a style they like to play. The Lightning still prefer to beat you with skill and were able to do that at points against the Boston Bruins and the Islanders. But when Boston and New York was able to dictate the style of play, Tampa Bay was able to roll with the punches and win those games as well. That was something Washington was incapable of doing against Barry Trotz's gameplan.