The Washington Capitals are off to the second round of the NHL playoffs.
We’ve seen this movie before, and the ending just sucks.
In the last 10 post-seasons, the Caps have qualified nine times and lost in the second round six times. And on three of those occasions, they fell to this year’s second round opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It seems the Capitals have a major demon to exorcise if they hope to win the their first ever Stanley Cup.
Yes, they have been successful since entering the league in 1974-75, missing the playoffs just seven times in the last 35 years (after an initial eight year drought). Their fans have gotten their money’s worth, then, but have to feel a little cheated about the fact that the Cup hasn’t been paraded around D.C.
The Capitals are hardly alone, though, among a slew of franchises in the ‘Big 4’, which, when the chips are down fall well short of the mark. Here are 20 teams who make the playoffs fairly regularly, but just can’t get it done.
20. Tennessee Titans
The measuring stick we are going to use for NFL teams is a Super Bowl championship, that is post AFL-NFL merger. The Tennessee Titans started out as the Houston Oilers in 1960 and immediately won two titles in the old AFL. Since then? Zip, nada, zilch. In the Bum Phillips era of the late 1970s, when the team featured Earl Campbell, they went to the AFC Championship twice and lost, both times to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Then, between 1987 and 1993, when Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon was kicking around, the Oilers made it to the playoffs seven times, losing in the divisional finals three times. The worst loss in that seven-year stretch was against Buffalo in the 1992 Wild Card game, where the Bills coming back from a 32-point deficit to win 41-38 in overtime. The team wouldn’t make another appearance in the post-season until it became the Titans, promptly losing in its only Super Bowl appearance to the St. Louis Rams, the game remembered for the “one-yard short” tackle on Titans’ receiver Kevin Dyson. They’ve made the playoffs six times since, their best finish another loss in the AFC Championship game in 2002.
19. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clips began life in the NBA as the former Buffalo Braves. In eight seasons, the Queen City iteration went to the playoffs three times, winning just once in the first round. Then, as the team moved to San Diego and then Los Angeles, it made the playoffs just three times between 1977 and 2005, never getting past the third round. In 2010, Blake Griffin happened on the scene, won Rookie of the Year and then in 2012, along with All-Star point guard Chris Paul, helped get the Clippers to the Western Conference semi-finals, losing to San Antonio. Griffin, Paul and a cast that at times included DeAndre Jordan, Grant Hill and Eric Bledsoe, were regulars in the next five playoff seasons, falling short each and every time. The one exit that hurt the worst happened in 2015, when L.A. grabbed a commanding 3-1 series lead on the Houston Rockets. And the victories in games 3 and 4 weren’t even close, as the Clips won by 25 and 33 points, respectively. Houston stormed back, however, leaving the Clippers in their wake with convincing wins. Since losing in the first round of the 2017 playoffs, both Paul and Griffin were traded away.
18. San Diego Padres
Lack of success in baseball is harder to quantify, in that only five teams from each league make the post-season (it used to be only two). Therefore, any club that qualifies on multiple occasions is pretty successful. The Padres are included here because they’ve been to the Fall Classic twice in their history, and lost both times. Otherwise, they have qualified for the post-season five times since 1969. They have also had good teams in intervening years, like the 2010 squad. Unfortunately for that team, it owned a 6.5 game lead on eventual champion San Francisco in late August, only to swoon down the stretch and miss the playoffs all together (not even making the wild card). The first time the Pads made the playoffs, in 1984, they won the NLCS against the Chicago Cubs, earning a ticket to face Detroit in the World Series. After splitting the first two games, the Tigers won three straight at old Tiger Stadium to win it. Fast forward to the late 90s and the Ken Caminiti/Tony Gwynn era. After losing in the 1996 NLDS, the ’98 team breezed through the NLDS and NLCS, setting up a date with the Yankees in the World Series. It wasn’t close, as the Bronx Bombers swept the Padres aside in four straight.
17. St. Louis Blues
In 1967, the Blues joined five other expansion teams as the NHL doubled its membership from the “Original 6” to 12 teams. For three seasons after, that very same Blues team made the Stanley Cup finals — and losing all three. Of note, St. Louis was swept in each Cup final, twice by Montreal and once by Boston. From expansion until the cancelled season of 2004-05, St. Louis missed the Big Dance just three times and in team history the Blues have failed to qualify for the post-season just nine times. Despite all their regular season success, St. Louis hasn’t been back to a Stanley Cup final since 1970. Their most recent long run was in 2016, when the bowed to the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference finals. The series that may have hurt the worst, though, was a seven-gamer with those same Sharks in the first round of the 2000 playoffs. The Sharks, who have known their own playoff futility, were the eighth seed facing the Presidents Trophy winning Blues, who featured Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger. San Jose, though, jumped out to a 3-1 lead on St. Louis. Undaunted, the Blues came back to win games 5 and 6 handily. The Sharks had the last laugh, however, cruising to a 3-1 win in game 7 in St. Louis.
16. Cincinnati Bengals
Just getting to the NFL playoffs can be a slog, with only six of 16 teams in each conference earning a shot at a title. The Bengals, who hopped on the NFL bandwagon in 1968, have the distinction of being good enough for a post-season berth 14 times in their history. Their most impressive run included six trips to the playoffs in seven seasons between 2009 and 2015. Only problem was, those teams lost in the Wild Card playoffs each and every time. Earlier in the franchise’s existence, around about 1981, the Bengals were among the cream of the NFL and had MVP quarterback Ken Anderson calling the signals. That team went 12-4, clipped Buffalo in the first round and thumped the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship, 27-7. Facing the Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XVI was no easy task, yet Anderson was mostly on his game, throwing for over 300 yards and two TDs. A crucial goal line stop by the Niners in the third quarter, though, denied a Bengals comeback victory in a game they would lose 26-21. Seven years later, Cincinnati went to the Super Bowl again, facing those same Niners and Montana. Only this time they let the lead slip away three times in a disheartening 20-16 loss.
15. Utah Jazz
Not even the “Mailman” himself could bring Salt Lake City a championship. Before we get into the specifics of the Karl Malone years in Utah, we have to mention the franchise, which started out as the New Orleans Jazz in 1974-75, missed the playoffs in its first nine seasons. However, since 1984 the team has missed the post-season just eight times. The team’s climb to respectability started with the drafting of future Hall of Famers John Stockton in 1984 and then Malone in 1985. The two would be instrumental in building a perennial playoff team that eventually made the finals against the Chicago Bulls in 1997. Malone was MVP for the first time in his career that season and the Jazz went in as underdogs. The powerful Bulls and Michael Jordan jumped out to a 2-0 series lead, but Malone and Stockton put the team on their backs to win two at home to knot the series. However, it was sad ending to magical season as Jordan scored 77 points over the final two games as Chicago won. Even worse, after yet another 60-plus win season in 1997-98, the Jazz would again bow to Chicago in six games in the finals. They haven’t been to the championship since.
14. Texas Rangers
We’re going to discount this franchise’s first 35 years (11 in Washington as the Senators), as just a sign of how hard it is — and was — to be a major league baseball playoff team. Starting in 1996, though, the Texas Rangers started making a name for themselves. In those days, catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and outfielder Juan Gonzalez were the studs of a team that made the ALDS in three of four years between ’96 and ’99. To their detriment, though, those Rangers faced the New York Yankees all three times and on two occasions were swept 3-0. Those gutting losses pre-dated a 10-year dry spell where they re-tooled and got back into the post-season in 2010. That year, baseball reclamation project Josh Hamilton was the team’s best player and AL MVP and the Rangers gained a measure of revenge on the Yanks, beating them 4-2 in the ALCS. They wouldn’t fare so well against San Francisco in the World Series, going down 4-1 and being outscored 29-12. In 2011, the team had its best record ever, 96-66 and returned to the Fall Classic. They took a 3-2 lead over St. Louis in the series, but blew a 7-4 seventh inning lead in game 6 en route to a 10-9 extra innings loss. That one proved too much as they dropped game 7. And don’t forget the 2015 ALDS, where the Rangers coughed up a 2-0 lead to Toronto, eventually losing 3-2.
13. Vancouver Canucks
The NHL’s two expansion teams in 1970 sure have known their fair share of disappointing playoff failure. Vancouver, more so than the Buffalo Sabres, gets our vote for the one that choked worst. The Canucks have been to the playoffs many times and the Stanley Cup finals three times. Their first foray into the final, in 1981 against the mighty New York Islanders, went as expected with the Isles winning in four straight. However, in 1994, the Canucks would let a winnable final slip through their fingers against the New York Rangers. Vancouver won game 1 in overtime, only to see Mark Messier and the Rangers storm back to take a 3-1 series lead. They staved off elimination with a huge 6-3 win at MSG in game 5, then squared the series at 3-3 winning 4-1 in game 6. However, Canucks killers Messier and Adam Graves would score in game 7 to win a long awaited title for New York. It would be another 17 years until the team made it back, this time drawing Boston in 2011. The script, though, was flipped on this one. When Alexandre Burrows scored in overtime of game 2, the Canucks held a huge 2-0 lead. Boston trounced them 8-1 and 4-0 to knot it up, before the resilient Canucks took game 5 by a 1-0 count. Their scoring inexplicably dried up in games 6 and 7, with Boston igniting a downtown Vancouver riot by winning the final game 4-0.
12. Detroit Lions
In the bad old pre-merger days of the NFL, the Detroit Lions were pretty good, winning four NFL championships. Their participation in the playoffs was sporadic until the 1990s, when the Lions made the post-season in six of nine seasons between 1991 and 1999. Only thing was, they made the NFC championship just once (and got smoked), while losing out in the NFC wild card game five times in a row. The team has never been to the Super Bowl and has even had a 0-16 season, so the 1991 season stands out as one where the team should have got it done, but didn’t. They had their best record in team history at 12-4 and entering the playoffs were a favorite to win it all. In the divisional finals, the Lions whipped the 11-5 Dallas Cowboys 38-6 on the arm of Erik Kramer and the feet of superstar RB Barry Sanders. This set up a NFC Championship game against Mark Rypien and the Washington Redskins, who had the best record at 14-2. The two teams fought it out in the first half, with the Redskins taking a 17-10 lead. Detroit folded like a house of cards in the second, though, eventually losing 41-10. Had they been able to topple Washington, they probably could have beaten Buffalo in the Super Bowl.
11. Toronto Raptors
All anyone needs to know about how the Raptors fold in the playoffs might be revealed in the first round of this year’s edition. Up 2-0 on Washington early, the Raptors have allowed the Wizards to creep back in. For historical perspective, Toronto’s first failed attempt at getting to a final occurred in 2001 after their sixth season in the NBA. They won round 1 against the Knicks and faced Allen Iverson and Philadelphia 76ers in the second round. This was a winnable series for a Raptors team that trotted out Vince Carter, Antonio Davis, Charles Oakley and Steph Curry’s Dad Dell. But, after taking a 2-1 series lead, the Sixers won three of the last four to send Toronto to the sidelines. Toronto didn’t become a force again until 2014 when they finished first in the Atlantic Division and were a contender. However, the would lose 4-3 in the first round to Paul Pierce and the Brooklyn Nets, made worse by the fact they had a 3-2 series lead and lost game 7 at home, 104-103. One year later, the Raptors had an even more demoralizing loss, this time to the Wiz. They finished first in the Atlantic again with what was their best ever record (49-33, since surpassed), only to bow meekly in four straight to Washington.
10. Arizona Cardinals
One of the NFL’s oldest franchises is also one of its least successful teams, too. The Cardinals began pro football life in Chicago in 1920 and with just one NFL championship (in 1947) to speak over, pretty much floundered. They moved around to, going from the Windy City to St. Louis and finally Phoenix (with a final name change to Arizona). The warmer air of the desert must have been the tonic, with the Arizona version of the Cardinals making the playoffs five times in the last 20 years (compare that to just five trips in the previous 77). Kurt Warner and the Cards finished 9-7 in 2008 and went on an improbable run to the Super Bowl. With just 2:37 left, Warner hit Larry Fitzgerald with a bomb to put Arizona up 23-20 against Pittsburgh. But, the Steelers got the ball, marched down the field and scored the winning TD on a controversial catch by WR Santonio Holmes. In 2015, Arizona finished with the second best record in football at 13-3, and then won in the divisional playoffs, only to get smoked by the 15-1 Carolina Panthers, 49-15.
9. Denver Nuggets
Since merging into the NBA in 1976, we were surprised to find that the Nuggets have made the playoffs 24 times. Not bad, but not great considering they have never been to a final. Their first deep run, in 1985, ended up in a 4-1 loss to the dynastic Los Angeles Lakers. Three years later they had their second best record ever at 54-28, but got bounced by the Dallas Mavericks in round 2. A bit of futility would follow, however, in a 10 season stretch between 2003-04 and 2012-13 the Nuggets made it to the post-season 10 straight times. They were first round fodder on nine occasions but in 2008-09 they tied their best record and looked like a threat. With Carmelo Anthony running the show on the floor, Denver cruised to a 4-1 first round series win over New Orleans, then spanked Dallas by the same count in round 2. As bad luck would have it, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers were their opponent in the Western Conference finals. Anthony was brilliant, scoring 27.5 points per game, but even his outstanding play couldn’t overcome Kobe in a 4-2 series loss.
8. San Jose Sharks
Ever the bridesmaid, never, ever a bride. That is the story of the San Jose Sharks, who enter the second round of the 2018 NHL playoffs having disposed of Anaheim 4-0 in the first round. Since joining the NHL in 1991, the Sharks have only failed to go to the playoffs six times, yet they have only been to one Stanley Cup final. Their post-season history is punctuated with egregious defeats. One of the worst occurred in 2009, when the Presidents Trophy winning Sharks compiled 117 points and drew the Anaheim Ducks in the first round. The Sharks finished 26 points ahead of the Ducks and on the surface this appeared to be a mis-match. The Ducks got great goaltending from Jonas Hiller, jumping out to a 2-0 series lead and after losing game 3, put a stranglehold on the best-of-seven with a second shutout win in game 4. Patrick Marleau saved the Sharks season with an OT winner in game 5, but in game 6 the Sharks ran into penalty trouble and a hot Hiller, losing 4-1. They’ve lost twice in the Western Conference finals since and in the 2016 Stanley Cup final to Pittsburgh.
7. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons futility in the playoffs can be boiled down to one quarter — much less one game. The Falcons have been to the Super Bowl twice and both times they lost, first to Denver in XXXIII and then, infamously, to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI. The Falcons won the NFC South in 2016 with a 11-5 record. MVP quarterback Matt Ryan had the Falcons running on all cylinders in the post-season, first whipping perennial contenders Seattle 36-20 in the divisional playoffs, then smoking Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers 44-21 to claim their second NFC Championship. Entering Super Bowl 51, the Falcons were decided underdogs against the powerhouse Patriots, but didn’t play like it. By the midway point of the third quarter, the Falcons were up 28-3, courtesy of two TD passes from Ryan, a long pick six and a short run by RB Devonta Freeman. New England got six back before the end of the third frame, but were still down by 19 entering the final stanza. What happened then was nothing short of demoralizing for Falcons players, executives and fans. Tom Brady and Co. tied it before the end of the game and then won it in overtime with James White running it in from two yards out with just four minutes gone.
6. Indiana Pacers
People might be interested to know that during their first nine years of existence — in the old ABA — the Indiana Pacers were a powerhouse. They went to five ABA finals in that span and won three titles. A merge to the NBA wasn’t kind to the Pacers, who would make the post-season only three times in the next 14 seasons, winning two whole playoff games. Late in those lost years, the Pacers drafted Reggie Miller (1987) and he would make an impact. Starting in 1989-90, Indiana would get to the playoffs every year but one until Miller’s last season in 2004-05. Even with the hot-shooting and clutch Miller in the line-up, though, the Pacers would lose five times in the Eastern Conference finals and make the finals just once. That year, 2000, the Pacers would take care of their old nemesis, the New York Knicks, to reach the finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. While Miller and Jalen Rose were great, the Pacers couldn’t contain the Lakers Shaquille O’Neal, who copped the MVP by scoring a ridiculous 38 points per game and pulling down 16.7 rebounds.
5. Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings were the Buffalo Bills of the 1970s — only they have gone to the playoffs on far many more occasions than the Bills. The Vikes lost their first of four Super Bowls in 1969, 23-7 to Kansas City. They then lost Super Bowl VIII to Miami and IX to Pittsburgh in back-to-back years (1974-75) and the Super Bowl XI to Oakland in early 1977. Even though the made it all the way to the championship four times, the worst season and the reason they are on this list for not being able to push through had to be 1998. That year the team went 15-1 (the best record in franchise history) and scored a whopping 556 points on the arm of Randall Cunningham, the leg of kicker Gary Anderson (record 164 points) and the hands of Offensive Rookie of the Year Randy Moss. In the divisional playoffs, the Vikings easily disposed of the Arizona Cardinals, followed by a visit from the 14-2 Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game. The Vikes went up 27-17 early in the fourth quarter of that game and appeared to be in command. But the Falcons Chris Chandler had other ideas, hitting Terance Mathis for a 16-yard TD pass with less than a minute to go to tie it up at 27-27. The Falcons won it on a 38-yard Morten Anderson field goal in OT.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder, who used to be the Seattle SuperSonics, have been to the Show four times, winning just once in 1978-79. While winning a fairly recent title shouldn’t have made them a candidate for this list, consider that they had far better teams in later years who either lost out early, or failed in the finals. For instance, in 1993-94, the Sonics had their second best regular season ever at 63-19, only to lose in the first round of the playoffs to Denver, who finished 21 games behind them. Two years later, they had their best season ever, registering a 64-18 mark and lost in the finals to the Chicago Bulls. In 1997-98 Seattle finished 61-21 (identical to the Lakers) and lost in the second round to those very same Lakers. In 10 seasons playing in Oklahoma City, post-season failure has followed, despite the presence of superstars like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. In a strike shortened 2011-12 season, the Thunder fashioned a 47-19 record and made it to the finals. Awaiting them were the Miami Heat and LeBron James. OKC did shock Miami and win game 1, but it was all LeBron and the Heat the rest of the way.
3. Washington Nationals
Had the 1994 MLB season not been wiped out by a mid-season strike, we might not be writing about the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals in a negative light. As it was, the Expos, who had their hearts broken by Rick Monday in the 1981 NLCS, were 74-40 at the time of the ’94 strike and looked poised to capture the franchise’s first championship. The team’s fortunes dipped after that and in 2005 the squad was moved to Washington. The Nats suffered through seven mediocre campaigns before becoming a contender in 2012. They finished first in the east that year with a 98-64 record and had one of the game’s brightest young stars in their line-up, Bryce Harper. In the 2012 NLDS, Washington was taking on St. Louis, which finished a full 10 games behind them. It was a tale of two different teams, as the Nationals won games 1 and 4 by scores of 3-2 and 2-1, but lost the series due to getting thumped in the other three (12-4, 8-0 and 9-7). They’ve had three first place finishes since and have lost in the NLDS each and every time.
2. Washington Capitals
How have the Capitals let their fans down over the years? Let us count the ways. The NHL’s perennial regular season powerhouse has made an industry out of blowing it when the games mean something. In the last nine years alone, the Capitals have won three Presidents Trophies and in all three cases failed to make it past the second round. In 2010, the year they garnered a team record 121 points, the Caps did the unthinkable and lost in the first round to the Montreal Canadiens, who finished 33 points behind them. The Habs gave Washington a wake-up call and won game 1 in overtime, 3-2. The Capitals stormed back, winning the next three games to take a lead many figure they wouldn’t relinquish. Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak was brilliant over the last three games, limiting the powerful Capitals to just three goals to stun Washington in seven. Alex Ovechkin, who had eight points in the first four games, had two in the last three. Compounding their team’s choking ways, the Capitals have won the last two straight Presidents Trophies, only to lose in both 2016 and 2017 to arch nemesis Pittsburgh in the second round. They are playing them again this year, yikes.
1. Cleveland Indians
It’s been nearly 70 long years since the Cleveland Indians last won a World Series. After losing the Fall Classic in 1954, the Tribe missed the playoffs every year until 1995. Like Montreal in the lost season of 1994, the Indians got good, but couldn’t prove it after the season was cancelled. In ’95, also a shortened campaign, the Indians were an incredible 100-44. As good as they were, they were no match for the Atlanta Braves, who beat them 4-2 in the World Series. In 1996, Cleveland went 99-62 but lost in the ALDS and a year later, they weren’t quite as good, going 86-75 but clawed their way to a winnable World Series against the Florida Marlins. It was a topsy turvy series that saw Cleveland pitching shut down Marlins hitter during three wins (they allowed just five runs, while in the losses they allowed 29. In game 7, the Tribe’s pitching was spot on but the Fish clawed back a 2-0 deficit to tie it and send it to extras. In the fateful 11th, Florida’s Edgar Renteria hit a walk off single to win it. The Indians compounded their considerable playoff woes by coughing up a 3-1 lead on the Chicago Cubs in 2016, also losing in seven.