The Capitals winning their first Stanley Cup was incredible, glorious and unforgettable for all of the reasons that I talked about on The Morning Blitz with Al Galdi and that we’ve been talking about here on The Team 980. But from a Nationals standpoint, are there any lessons to be learned? After all, the Nats, like the Caps, have struggled in the postseason, although nowhere near as much as the Caps had (the Nats are 0-4 in NLDS play since the franchise moved to D.C.; the Caps, entering this just-concluded postseason, had seen 25 of 27 all-time playoff appearances end in a first or second round).
The news on Thursday that Mark Lerner was taking over for his father, Ted, as Nats managing partner was noteworthy on several levels, including that Mark has been a minority owner of the Caps since 2004. And so here are three undeniable aspects of the Caps’ run to their first Stanley Cup that the Nats should take note of:
1. The Caps “manned” up
This is cliche, I’ll grant you that, but the extent to which the Caps overcame adversity during the Stanley Cup Playoffs can not be denied. The Caps went 10-3 on the road, matching the NHL record for most road wins in a single postseason. The Caps went 2-1 without the suspended Tom Wilson over the final three games of the series win over Pittsburgh in the second round. The Caps went 3-1 without Nicklas Backstrom during his four-game absence caused by a right-hand injury, winning Game 6 at the Penguins to clinch that series and Games 1 and 2 at Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Final.
It’s difficult to pass off some of the worst postseason moments for the Nats as just them not “manning” up, but there has been a potential lack of toughness. Drew Storen allowing four runs in the top of the ninth in the 9-7 loss to St. Louis in NLDS Game 5 in Oct. 2012. Matt Wieters falling apart in the Cubs’ four-run fifth in the Nats’ 9-8 loss to the Cubs in NLDS Game 5 in Oct. 2017 (Javier Baez reach first on a strikeout-passed ball (that, in fairness to Wieters, shouldn’t have been allowed due to Baez’s backswing striking Wieters) and then advanced to second on a throwing error by Wieters, and Tommy La Stella reached first base on catcher interference by Wieters). Gio Gonzalez struggling mightily in NLDS Games 1 and 5 in 2012, NLDS Game 3 in 2016 and NLDS Games 2 and 5 in 2017. Are all of these bad performances due to not “manning” up? Impossible to say. But that’s also impossible to dismiss.
2. The Caps’ “big guns” delivered
The Caps’ top five point producers from the regular season (Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson and T.J. Oshie) were the team’s top five point producers in the postseason.
The Nats, way too often, have seen their stars struggle in the playoffs. Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson struggled in the 2012 five-game NLDS loss to St. Louis. Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche, Wilson Ramos, Denard Span and Jayson Werth all struggled in the 2014 four-game NLDS loss to San Francisco (a combined 9-for-89 with seven walks). Anthony Rendon struggled in the 2016 five-game NLDS loss to the Dodgers, though he was one of the few Nats who actually hit against the Giants in that 2014 NLDS. Ryan Zimmerman struggled in the 2017 five-game NLDS loss to the Cubs. Heck. even Max Scherzer, as great as he is, has had issues over his two NLDS series with the Nats (3.72 ERA over 19 1/3 innings).
3. The puck luck finally went the Caps’ way
Truth be told, there is a major element of luck in postseason series. Take Stanley Cup Final Game 4, which resulted in a 6-2 Caps win but also included multiple Vegas shots hitting the post in the first period. How much different had that game been had the Caps not taken a 3-0 lead in the first period of a rout that gave them a 3-1 series lead?
Along those lines, there certainly has been an element of bad luck for the Nats in these NLDS losses. The Nats were one strike – one strike! – away from winning that Game 5 against the Cardinals in 2012. How bout last season’s Game 5 loss to the Cubs? That game included that insane a four-batter sequence against Max Scherzer in the Cubs’ four-run fifth: an intentional walk of Jayson Heyward, Javier Baez reaching first on a strikeout-passed ball and then advance to second on a throwing error by Matt Wieters, Tommy La Stella reaching first base on catcher interference by Wieters and then Jon Jay getting hit by a pitch with the bases loaded. Not a single one of the 2.73 million half innings in Baseball Reference’s data base had even had all four of these events; only five games had had all four. As bad as Dusty Baker’s #strategery was in that game, a little bit of luck might have resulted in a win and Dusty still being the Nats’ manager.