The Washington Capitals have the NHL’s best record entering the postseason. But let’s wait before labeling this a Cup or bust season.

By William Chase

The Washington Capitals have played through one of their best seasons in franchise history, as tonight’s game No. 82 against the Anaheim Ducks concludes the regular season portion of the schedule.

The Caps have sewn up the No. 1 record in the entire NHL, claiming their second Presidents Trophy in the process. Games haven’t mattered for Washington in nearly two weeks, as far as further advancement in the standings.

But for everyone who has followed the Capitals in recent years, they know about the usually terrific regular seasons, and less-than-stellar postseason runs that follow. The 2009-10 club that clinched the first Presidents Trophy became a first-round exit, at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens.

This season’s squad still has a chance to earn the most points in franchise history, eclipsing the 121 that the 2009-10 team achieved. Braden Holtby, who is not expected to start tonight’s regular season finale, is tied with New Jersey Devils icon Martin Brodeur for most wins in a single season with 48.

A team that had not lost back-to-back games until after Christmas, Washington stumbled through a mini-slide post All-Star Break, which is expected for any team. It’s impossible to maintain the kind of pace they were setting more than a quarter of the way through the season.

Washington’s matchup with the 2nd wild card, the Philadelphia Flyers, doesn’t appear to be as daunting a task for a team who, on paper, should find themselves in the second round. And the Flyers are not that other daunting Pennsylvania team. You know, the one the Washington Post recently listed as the Stanley Cup favorites, according to Vegas oddsmakers.

However, these are the Capitals, and they have proven the playoffs have not come with the same relative ease as past regular seasons have dictated.

2010-11 Lost Conference Semifinals 4-0 (Lightning)
2011-12 Lost Conference Semifinals 4-3 (Rangers)
2012-13 Lost Conference Quarterfinals 4-3 (Rangers)
2013-14 Did not make playoffs
2014-15 Lost Conference Semifinals 4-3 (Rangers)

For Barry Trotz, and the most talented team in franchise history, it might be unfair to pin such expectations on them, thus saying this is a Cup or bust team, but is there any other way around it?

Can this team finally get over the hump?

All season I have said the Capitals need to get to the Eastern Conference Finals. Yes, falling short in any way would likely come across as a failed season, in the eyes of pundits. However, for a team who has not sniffed the Stanley Cup Finals since their loss–a sweep at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings–since 1998, lets keep this in perspective.

For a team who hasn’t made it to the Conference Finals since that Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1998-99, and for a team who hasn’t made it past the second round since  that same year, it’s not even fair to label this team Cup or bust.

It’s a whole new group, despite the handful that was on hand for the teams’ first Presidents Trophy run in 2009-10. The Capitals will lean heavily on the veteran postseason leadership provided by three-time Stanley Cup champion Justin Williams, aka Mr. Game 7, signed to Washington in the offseason.

T.J. Oshie, in his first season with Washington, has made plenty of trips to the postseason with the St. Louis Blues, who have shared similarly recent postseason failures.

Holtby, a likely Vezina favorite, enjoyed his best season to date. And of course there’s captain Alexander Ovechkin, who has the desire to make this season continue deep into   the summer.

While anything less than a Stanley Cup will feel like a disappointment to the team, and possibly its fans, lets remember the recent years, and wait to see where this team ultimately ranks when everything is said and done.

Outside of being eliminated in the first couple rounds, instead of labeling any elimination as a failure, consider it another building block towards success. It’s not a Stanley Cup or bust season. It’s, at the very least, an Eastern Conference Finals or Bust season.

One small step at a time, folks.

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William Chase is editor at Elite Sports NY, and has been featured on such prominent websites including Bleacher Report. William is also currently the Marketing & Media Relations Intern for the Augusta GreenJackets.