WASHINGTON, D.C. – For years the Washington Capitals have been just good enough to not be champions.
For instance, in 2010, the Capitals were the best team during the NHL’s regular season, winning the Presidents’ Trophy, and were heavy Stanley Cup favorites until disappearing in the playoffs.
However, this year’s Washington team is setting the world on fire, and through the first 47 games of the season is tied for the greatest start in terms of wins (35) in NHL history. The Capitals boast a 35-8-4 record and are favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
With a 17-point division lead and an 11-point conference lead over the Florida Panthers at the All-Star break, these Caps are showing the rest of the league they mean business.
But with their track record as a franchise, will they once again fizzle out in the first round of the playoffs? I don’t think they will. I think they are poised for a very deep playoff run this season, and I’m going to explain why.
Washington leads the league in scoring (3.32 goals-per-game) and has the best power play in the NHL (26.8 percent efficiency). This is nothing new. With Alex Ovechkin on the left circle it makes the Capitals’ power play the NHL’s deadliest by default.
But it is defensively and in the net where the Caps have improved so much and what has turned this team into the heavy favorite they are.
Defensively, the Capitals allow the second fewest goals against (2.18 per-game) and kill 84.7 percent of their penalties, which is fourth best in the league.
In net, Washington has hit the jackpot with Braden Holtby. Goaltending coach Mitch Korn, who is renowned as “the greatest goalie coach on Earth,” has turned Holtby into the best goalie the NHL has ever seen in a regular season. If Montreal’s Carey Price swept the awards last season, winning both the MVP with the Hart Memorial Trophy and the best goaltender with the Vezina Trophy, then I fully expect Holtby to do the same this season as he has surpassed the eye-popping numbers Price put up last season.
Holtby currently has a 30-5-3 record in 39 games, but will that workload be too much? Holtby recently had to leave a game for dehydration and left many fans concerned about the workload of their goaltender. With the recent winter weather in the area, the Capitals have had quite the extended break, so those fatigue concerns for Holtby are now over. But the team has now played only 47 games, the least in the NHL, thanks to a couple of weather postponements. Washington now plays 35 games in 71 days after the break and Holtby is just 18 wins away from tying Martin Brodeur’s record of 48 wins in a regular season. I would expect Holtby to get at least 27 more starts before the playoffs.
Secondary scoring has been the Achilles’ heel of the Capitals for ages, with the blueprint for opponents sounding like “take away Ovechkin and let the rest of them beat us.” And that has led to many playoff failures for the franchise.
This year, Ovechkin is still being Ovechkin. He is one of the game’s best scorers and is currently tied for second in the league in scoring with 28 goals – just two goals behind Patrick Kane.
But this time around Ovi is getting a ton of help from his teammates in the secondary scoring department as well. Center Evgeny Kuznetsov has blossomed into an elite-level talent, leading the Capitals in points with 49 (15 goals, 34 assists) and the additions of Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie have given the team one of the deepest rosters in the league. Williams and Oshie have combined for 62 points at the All-Star break and have also helped the team in more defensive aspects.
So who can beat them? At the moment there is nobody in the Eastern Conference that looks like they can beat the Capitals over seven games. But given the franchise’s past failures and the pressure on the Caps and Ovechkin to win this year, Washington could very well be tested or beaten by a handful of teams.
Old Atlantic Division rivals Florida and Tampa Bay would be a tough task for the Caps in a seven-game series, as well as half of the “Original Six” who are always a threat to achieve greatness in the playoffs. The Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers are historically known for making deep playoff runs regardless of their regular season records.
At the moment none of these teams look like they can outplay the Washington Capitals. The plan for the second half of the season should just be to get healthy heading into the playoffs. If the Capitals are healthy going into the playoffs, the franchise will most likely be hoisting its first Stanley Cup.