The Capitals ended a 44-year Stanley Cup drought last spring picking up fans from other cities along the way as Alex Ovechkin and company finally broke through with a title after so many misses.
With Washington out in the first round this time, there’s an easy choice for this year’s version of a long-suffering team that could finally have its moment of glory. In fact, there are two of them.
The St. Louis Blues will play the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Final beginning Saturday night at 8 p.m. on NBC. Those teams, in their own way, check all of the Capitals’ boxes perfectly: An agonizing history of near misses, heartbreaking playoff losses, massive choke jobs and a laundry list of seasons that could have been the one, but weren’t.
All due respect to the Eastern Conference teams, the Boston Bruins have won the Stanley Cup plenty of times, including as recently as 2011, and the Carolina Hurricanes, for all their goofy, Cinderella charm and young talent, won the Cup in 2006. Yes, Raleigh has had a championship parade.
That must be as infuriating to Blues fans as it was to Capitals fans before last year’s title run. Carolina only got its team in 1997, after all, when the Hartford Whalers relocated. The Hurricanes have played in the Cup Final twice (2002, 2006) and have now made the conference final two other times (2009, 2019).
St. Louis was an expansion team in 1967-68 when the NHL finally went beyond six teams. Yes, the Blues played in the Cup final each of their first three seasons (1968, 1969, 1970). The legendary photo of Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr scoring the winning goal in overtime to win the Cup came against St. Louis in Game 5 of the 1970 series.
But back then the NHL kept its established Original Six teams in one conference and its six expansion teams in the other. Someone had to be the sacrificial lamb in the championship round. The Blues were swept in all three Stanley Cup Final series they played and haven’t been back since.
That’s 47 seasons since St. Louis last played for a title and 50 seasons without one. That beats even the Capitals, who went 43 seasons and 44 years (there was one season canceled because of a lockout) before winning that elusive Stanley Cup for the first time.
And don’t take that to mean the Blues were bad. Much like Washington, St. Louis has made the playoffs year after year after year. In 51 seasons, the Blues have made it 42 times. They rank seventh in wins (1,860) and seventh in points (4,300) during that half-century. And yet they have reached even as far as the Western Conference Final just three times (1986, 2001, 2016).
That’s eerily similar to the Capitals’ sustained stretch of success with 28 playoff appearances in 35 seasons before they finally broke through with their first Cup last spring.
But if St. Louis is about even with the Capitals in longevity, it is the Sharks who have matched them in utter and complete heartbreak. Remember, Washington has blown a 3-1 playoff series lead five different times. That has only happened 28 times ever.
San Jose has that one topped. The Sharks blew a 3-0 series lead to the Los Angeles Kings in 2014. That is one of only four times that’s happened in NHL history. It didn’t help that the Kings were good enough to go on and win the Stanley Cup.
It was one of many missed opportunities for the Sharks, who have the most wins (638) and most points (1,400) in the NHL since the 2005-06 season. The Capitals are third (612 wins, 1,357 points) during that stretch, which encompasses Alex Ovechkin’s entire career.
Both teams have won the Presidents’ Trophy for the best record in the league and yet lost in the first round. Washington did it in glorious fashion in 2010 by also combining it with a 3-1 series lead in the first round against Montreal. San Jose did that the year before in 2009 by losing to Anaheim.
The Sharks rebounded from that ugly loss to make the Western Conference Final in 2010 and 2011, but won just one game total in separate series against Chicago and Vancouver. The blown series to the Kings looked like the end for Joe Thornton’s team.
Thornton, chosen first overall in the 1997 NHL draft by the Bruins, has been with the Sharks since a 2005 trade. Much like Ovechkin, Thornton was a one-time Hart Trophy winner as league MVP who couldn’t get it done in the playoffs. He remains on the short list of best active players never to win a Cup now that Ovechkin is off it.
There’s one other connection between the Ovechkin-era Capitals and San Jose: They both lost to Pittsburgh in the 2016 playoffs. Washington won the Presidents’ Trophy that year, too, but was beaten in six games by its rival in the second round. That was also the same year the Sharks reached the Stanley Cup Final for the only time in franchise history, but they lost in six games to the Penguins and were denied a title.
That year looked like the big breakthrough for San Jose when it finally won the West. It’s opponent in the conference final that spring? The Blues, whom they beat in six games. Now each team finds itself with yet another chance to join the Capitals in the Stanley Cup club and once and for all make their tortured fanbases' dreams come true. Fans in Washington can relate.
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