The general public has a short memory. This is true in most things but particularly in sports. This is known as a ‘recency bias’–here’s an explanation from the New York Times:
“The recency bias is pretty simple. Because it’s easier, we’re inclined to use our recent experience as the baseline for what will happen in the future. In many situations, this bias works just fine, but when it comes to investing and money it can cause problems.”
What they meant to say is that ‘when it comes in investing, sports betting and money it can cause problems’. Here’s another definition with an example from the sports world:
“Recency bias” is the phenomenon of a person most easily remembering something that has happened recently, compared to remembering something that may have occurred a while back. “
“A fictional 24 hour sports network has a year-end special called the “Greatest Sports Plays of All Time”. The show features the best ever plays from sports like football, baseball, basketball, etc. The show polls fans to develop a list of the best ever plays.”
“Each year, plays that occurred over the past year dominate the show. Did 70% of the greatest sports plays of all time really occur just over the past 12 months? Definitely not – this is an example of “recency bias”, as we tend the best remember the events that have occurred most recently. “
This brings us to Wednesday night’s Game 7 between the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals. If you’ve followed hockey for awhile now think about how the Washington Capitals are perceived today–they’re the defending Stanley Cup Champions who last year ended the unprecedented playoff of run of the Vegas Golden Knights for a 4-1 win in the finals. Now think back before that–way back, to 2017 and before. Do you remember what the playoff identity of the Washington Capitals was then–before the Stanley Cup?
That’s right–they were one of the worst playoff teams in hockey. The ‘line of demarcation’ is usually considered Alex Ovechkin’s rookie season (2001) but it goes back *way* beyond that. In 1998, the Capitals made the Stanley Cup Finals only to get bludgeoned by the Detroit Red Wings in four straight games. That is significant because it is one of only three times in franchise history that the Caps made it out of the second round. Last year was another. The other was 1990, when the Caps were swept in the Wales Conference finals by the Boston Bruins. Since the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals loss the Caps first went on a nine year stretch where they failed to qualify for the playoffs give times. When they did qualify, they were eliminated in the first round (2004-2005 was the lockout year).
In 2007-2008, the Capitals became a fixture in the postseason as Alex Ovechkin became one of the most prolific goal scorers in the game. That didn’t help Washington’s postseason performance. From 2008 until 2018 they only made it out of the second round once–last year’s Stanley Cup run. They failed to qualify in 2013-2014, lost in the first round three times and lost in the second round six times. Before last year’s Stanley Cup run you’d frequently see articles like this one entitled ‘A history of Capitals playoff failures in the Alex Ovechkin era‘.
In the decade before last year’s Stanley Cup victory, Washington played in ten 7 game playoff series. They won three and lost seven. All three of the wins came in the first round so it’s not inaccurate to suggest that their Game 7 record is ‘padded’ by first round series where they beat teams in 7 games they should have dispatched easily. In all of the Capitals’ franchise history, Washington is 5-11 in Game 7s with 8 losses coming on home ice. That ties the Caps with the Boston Bruins for most home ice Game 7 losses in NHL history. The difference, of course, is that Boston played in a 7 game playoff series for the first time in 1939. Washington’s first 7 game series came in 1985. The Bruins’ 8 home losses have come over 80 years while the Caps have come over 34 years.
None of this is to say that the Capitals can’t or won’t win Game 7 over the Carolina Hurricanes. It is to say that the Hurricanes (who are 4-0 in Game 7 situations in franchise history) are in no way a big underdog to win and advance. There’s a perception that the Caps had a substantially better regular season than Carolina but the reality is that they were separated by 5 points in the standings. Tampa Bay ran away with the Eastern Conference but the 7 remaining playoff teams were separated by a total of 9 points. Given the Caps now forgotten playoff struggles–particularly in Game 7–and the parity in the Eastern Conference this year the ‘canes are the play.