The Washington Capitals were a team I could just never trust. So many Top 3 seeds. So many President’s Trophies. Yet stuck in the same spot almost every year, out in the second round. With another series against the 2-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, it seemed like history was doomed to repeat itself, until it wasn’t. Capitals fans were thinking, “here we go again” once they blew a 2-0 lead in Game 1, and the Penguins scored ferociously later in the game to steal one in Washington. Then after Ovechkin stunned the Penguins late with 1:07 to go in Game 3, the Penguins tied it again. The Capitals won game 5 with a go-ahead goal by youngster Jakob Vrana in the third period. But the Capitals were up 3-2 before. They were up 3-1 and were leading with under 2 minutes to go against the Rangers in 2013-14. Normally, that was all gone. Until now, when Evgeny Kuznetsov, a rising young center in this league for the Capitals, made a very slick move with the puck to get Matt Murray out of position and net a game-winner in overtime, finally putting the Washington Capitals in the conference finals. And with that very unlikely scenario actually occurring, it got me thinking how this year has and will present itself with scenarios like that, where teams have broken goals that have constantly hindered them. While that hasn’t worked with every team’s drought (we’re looking at you, Toronto), there have been plenty broken this year so far and with a good potential to continue.
Already Happened: Buffalo Bills playoff drought
The Buffalo Bills are the first basis of the drought-breaking theory. While their playoff feat happened technically in 2017 (New Year’s Eve), their playoff appearance was too good not to count, and is way too relevant to this theory. The Bills have been consistently average for a long time. Never terrible but never good enough, especially in the second half of the season. And there were certainly moments in the second half of this season where I was going, “classic Bills.” That included the final game of the season against the Dolphins where the Bills were up 22-3 but then Miami came back to get it to 22-16, and then recovered the onside kick. I was thinking, “could the Bills possibly blow it again?”, as it just seemed inevitable knowing the mental instability of this team. However, an interception by an overperforming Jordan Poyer gave them the chance to get in, but needed a loss from a Ravens team that was playing well in the second half of the season and has never been collapse-prone. However, the Bengals jumped out to a 24-10 lead after an interception return for a touchdown seemed like it would haunt the Ravens. However, what the Bills saw coming back to the locker room was a tie game after the Ravens came back and then they took a 27-24 lead. And at that point, nobody believed Buffalo’s dream could come alive. Having to trust the Bengals to come through in the clutch against the second best performance defense in the NFL who just shut them out back in Week 1? Didn’t seem like it was going to happen. And then it did. First a dumb Marlon Humphrey pass interference penalty negated what would have been a game-ending interception. Then after a sack and two more plays, 4th and 12 presented itself. The Ravens? They couldn’t possibly give that up. Not that defense. But it was just meant to be for the Buffalo Bills. And it’s not like it was A.J. Green or Tyler Eifert making some spectacular catch. It was Tyler Boyd of all people. It was Andy Dalton, Mr. Playoff Choke himself, making the big throw. And it was the Ravens trustworthy defense allowing that big play, giving the Bengals a 31-27 lead, and sending Buffalo into the playoffs. While they did get edged out by Jacksonville in their playoff game 10-3, the team and the fans still enjoyed the experience of finally making it in the 21st century. Their last playoff game before that was a loss in the famous “Music City Miracle” kick return touchdown. But them holding on after almost blowing it and them getting help from the never clutch Cincinnati Bengals just proves the drought breaking theory was real right from the start.
Already Happened: March Madness tournament droughts
With all I was covering college basketball for this website, you had to expect me to include the greatness of this NCAA tournament. For two teams, it was a personal drought of making the NCAA tournament and storming in with wins. For another, it was an inspirational win that gave 16 seeds confidence for years to come, breaking a drought for all of them. March Madness is always very interesting, but this particular tournament had some of the best memorable moments. Starting with UMBC, while this isn’t necessarily a direct drought buster to the team, it was their first tournament win in school history and it came in glorious fashion. First, they had to win their conference tournament on the final day to get in, and they did so on a buzzer-beater against the higher-favored Vermont Catamounts, a team that many thought could be pesky themselves had they got into the tournament. However, it was the Retreivers that got in, and they had the task of taking on the #1 overall seed in Virginia. Their defense was very strong, and was able to play well enough to go into the half tied at 21. And then their offense took over, and they were able to grow leads in the second half, leads that went from 8 to 13 to 15 to 12, and eventually 20. They had 53 points in the second half, and multiple runs to get them there. 4 players were in double figures, including Jarius Lyles with 28. They dominated the second half and the rest is history, giving 16 seeds a reason to believe for years to come, and breaking a drought that has hindered their collective group for years. As for the individual teams, the first drought worth focusing on is that of Marshall. Marshall was a team I liked as a sleeper coming out of Conference USA, but I never thought they would beat a Wichita State team that has always been good in the tournament and had their best statistical offensive season under Gregg Marshall. However, Marshall was the better team throughout that entire game, and their John Elmore-led offense had some big runs and tough shots in the second half against the Shockers defense. Marshall broke a drought of 31 years not being in the NCAA tournament, and then stunned one of the more well-rounded teams in this tournament. But an even longer drought and an even greater story was created in the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers. After winning the Missouri Valley conference, Loyola won the hearts of many with some inspirational buzzer-beaters against Miami and Tennessee in the first weekend, giving the Ramblers their first tournament win since 1985. But they didn’t stop there. They used that drought busting mentality to keep rolling in the Cinderella conference, stunning Nevada by 4 points on a Marcus Townes dagger 3, and then rolling all over Kansas State with 78 points against a very talented and well-coached defensive team, in route to a Final Four appearance as an 11 seed. Loyola used that drought to go on that Cinderella run and proving time in and time out with clutch baskets and great defense, and made them the most enjoyable team to watch in this NCAA tournament.
Already happened: Minnesota Timberwolves playoff drought
The young, promising Minnesota Timberwolves came into the season with great potential to make the playoffs. While they seemed like they were locks to get in throughout the NBA season, a Jimmy Butler injury in late February knocked them down further, and allowed other teams to get back into the mix, including two that are still in the playoffs in the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans. The Timberwolves were struggling down the stretch, and there were several nights where they were the first team out. And being that they had the longest playoff drought among NBA franchises at the time (their last appearance before that was 2004-05), having to play a win or go home game against the Denver Nuggets put a lot of pressure on them. The game was at home which helped them out, but that kind of drought still forced the hand of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford, and others to give the Minnesotans playoff basketball that they hadn’t seen in over a decade. And a lot of those guys came through. Butler had 31, Towns had 26 to go along with 14 rebounds, and Teague had 17 points and 7 assists. Despite the Nuggets getting 35 from Nikola Jokic, the Timberwolves played a better brand of team basketball, and did it under difficult circumstances, especially with the game going to overtime. And with outscoring them 11-5 in overtime, the Timberwolves defeated the Nuggets to edge them out for the #8 seed and their first playoff appearance in 13 years, when they had Kevin Garnett and Flip Saunders. And despite losing to the Houston Rockets in the first round, the future is bright for this young Timberwolves bunch, assuming they all stay together.
Can happen: Canadian Stanley Cup drought
No Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since the Montreal Canadiens did so in 1993, and no Canadian team has made it since the Ottawa Senators lost to the then Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 2006-07. However, the Winnipeg Jets’ showcase of dominance, especially on the road, may change things this postseason. While they haven’t yet advanced to the conference finals, this is a Jets team that has won twice already in Nashville and has played well from behind all throughout this series. They have great offensive depth, a breakthrough goaltender in Connor Hellebuyck, and a good mixture of youth and veteran players. And with the rambunctious Canadian hockey fans hoping for success, there is a lot of pressure on the Winnipeg Jets. While Canadian hockey rivalries can get very intense, I think that the Winnipeg Jets are too young of a team for the entire country to hate as well. I think there will be some Canadian fans of even other Western Conference teams that wouldn’t mind rooting for the last team remaining in their country. And this Winnipeg team could very much do it, like I said already having won twice in Nashville. It will not be easy for them to win at Bridgestone Arena which has always been loud and hostile throughout the playoffs. However, being that they have done so twice, who says they can’t do it again? If they do advance, they will also have to get through the Vegas Golden Knights, which are trying to write their own story as a new expansion team. However, with Winnipeg’s top end talent, physicality, and hot goaltending, there is a possibility they could knock the Knights off too. The Jets have been one of the best performance based teams in the playoffs, and are doing it for city and for country. The pressure has been there is the past for them to get in, but this team in a consistently wild Western Conference has a legitimate chance to end that drought.
Can happen: Michigan finally beating Ohio State
Ohio State against Michigan is always a great college football event and tends to be a very close rivalry game every year. Ohio State crosses off every M on campus and on social media during that week. Jim Harbaugh and Michigan athletic department representatives are trash talking and yelling constantly to fuel the fire. However, amidst that rivalry is also a drought that has hindered Michigan for a good part of half a decade. They haven’t won since 2011, and have fallen apart on multiple occasions. And despite me believing they got robbed in 2016, as I thought J.T. Barrett was short of the first down, that win still stands as a Buckeye victory. However, this is one of those years that Michigan could possibly do it. Despite Ohio State having a strong recruiting class themselves, Michigan finally landed their quarterback in transfer Shea Patterson. Michigan has had great defenses and running games under Jim Harbaugh, but have had a carousel of different quarterbacks in his 4 years there. Patterson has good promise and should definitely be the best of that bunch. The other factor is that J.T. Barrett also ran out of eligibility due to his graduation and now Ohio State will be searching for a quarterback to lead that team. While the rest of that team still has great talent, they still have to trust a redshirt sophomore in Joe Burrow likely to lead that team at the most important position. While they still have a good running game and offensive line to help him out, Michigan has a very talented front and didn’t lose much on that defense besides Maurice Hurst to the NFL, while Ohio State lost key players such as Sam Hubbard, Jerome Baker, and Denzel Ward. What I’m getting at is it will take an Urban Meyer master class once again to down this Michigan team from a raw roster standpoint unless the recruits break through right away, but the pressure of beating Ohio State will still be difficult for the Wolverines. However, I think an experienced defense and the quarterback that Michigan has deserved for years can cause them to break this 7-year drought of defeating their biggest rival.
Can happen: Seattle Mariners making the playoffs
And lastly, we have the longest drought remaining in professional sports. With the Bills breaking their playoff drought that lasted to 1999, that title now belongs to the Seattle Mariners. Since their 116 win season in 2001, faltering in the ALDS to the New York Yankees has plagued this franchise ever since. Like the Bills, the Mariners have been consistently average for a long time, never terrible, but never good enough in the second half of the season to break through and sneak in. However, with young players such as Edwin Diaz and Mitch Haniger improving, a nice veteran core in Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Nelson Cruz, and some good acquisitions in Dee Gordon and Mike Leake, this Mariners team may be just the one to break that curse. They made the right decision in 2015 firing Lloyd McLendon and making the managerial shift to Scott Servais. Servais won 86 games in 2016, just missing the playoffs that year to the Baltimore Orioles, but showing some progress. Last year, they were contending all throughout late August, before injuries plagued them right at the end and finishing 78-84. However, in the state of this division, you have a team like the Texas Rangers struggling already, the Angels playing streaky, and the Athletics being an all-or-nothing power team. The Astros seem like they’ll win the division inevitably with their strong start to the season, and I definitely don’t believe the Mariners are at that level. However, the American League Central teams have taken a tremendous step back, and with the Yankees being in the American League East, there’s no way I see two wild card teams joining the Yankees in the playoffs from that division. So that might just leave an opening for this Mariners team that is improved from last year and well managed. Injuries and trade deadline moves will make a difference to this team that couldn’t recover when three starters were out at the same time in the second half of the season. However, mentally, they will have to be prepared to play crunch time baseball, something they have fallen short of in many second halves. They were the first team out of the playoffs in 2007, 2014, and 2016, with three different managers and multiple different players. But once again, this team has the talent to squeak in and break the drought. And like we’ve seen with the longest droughts in the NFL and NBA broken this year on the final day of the season, I don’t see why the Mariners can’t join them in this kind of year.
While I don’t think these scenarios are all realistic, the combination of what has happened and what has already happened show you that new teams are breaking into their respective league’s playoff this particular season more than ever. You saw it with teams like the Bills, Titans, Jaguars, and Rams in the NFL. You saw it with the 76ers and Timberwolves in the NBA. You saw it with a team like Georgia in college football, after being an average and mediocre team in the SEC until Kirby Smart came in. This kind of year has presented itself with teams breaking droughts and setting new standards for their franchises and schools. And whether it’s a playoff appearance, tournament or playoff win, or a rivalry game, we’ve seen teams break these particular droughts in the calendar year of 2018. While it hasn’t happened with every team looking to break their drought (Leafs and Raptors still lost for example), there will be more circumstances of these breakthroughs this year, according to what we’ve already seen the first 4 months of the calendar year of 2018 with teams like the Bills, Timberwolves, and most recently the Capitals overcoming what has haunted them for years.