This season’s Washington Capitals are off to their best start in franchise history, but anything short of a Stanley Cup Finals appearance will not be enough.
By William Chase
The Washington Capitals are running away with the Metropolitan Division, and show no signs of slowing down.
Off to the best start in franchise history, the Capitals (32-7-3) are looking to be a force come playoff time this season.
An area they have struggled with previously:
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)
Since making the playoffs for the first time in the Alexander Ovechkin-era (2007-08 season), the Capitals have been eliminated in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals three times, and have gone no farther than the Semifinals four times.
This Capitals team draws parallels to the 2009-10 team, which posted a franchise-best 121 points; the only non-Original Six team to reach the 120-point plateau.
Both teams boast a potent offense: each were or are ranked in the NHL’s top five in total goals for and average goals scored per game
However unlike that 2009-10 version, this season’s team is much better at keeping the puck out of the net having allowed the fewest goals this season (89).
2009-10: 2.48 GA/G
2015-16: 2.12 GA/G
Despite winning the President’s Trophy with 121-points that season, the Capitals made an early exit after being eliminated by the 8th-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the first round.
And the bad playoff luck seemed to follow them last season.
Up three games to one against the New York Rangers, the Caps appeared set to bury their previous playoff misfortunes and make the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1998.
Just 101 seconds away from victory.
The Rangers won the series in seven games.
After their two-year failed experiment with Adam Oates which saw them miss the postseason in 2013-2014, and just under two full seasons into the Barry Trotz-era, the Caps are soaring.
So far this season, the Capitals have experienced one losing streak—two games—and haven’t lost consecutive games in a month at that. They have the best goal differential (+49) in the NHL, rank second in goals scored (137) and goals for per game (3.26).
In addition, they have a possible Vezina and Hart Trophy-worthy candidate in Braden Holtby. For the season, he is 27-4-2 and leading the NHL in wins, and ranks in the top five in save percentage (.932) and goals against average (.932).
This is exactly what management had in mind when they inked Holtby to a five-year extension last offseason.
The issue has not been if the Capitals will get into the playoffs. It’s how far will they make it.
The Rangers have been their arch-nemesis in the past. So far this season, the Caps are 2-1 against the Blueshirts.
After falling 5-2 in the first meeting, the Caps rebounded, having turned a 3-1 deficit into a 7-3 onslaught. The most recent contest from Saturday, saw Washington relinquish a 2-0 third-period lead. They were able to tie the game with 5.7 seconds left in regulation thanks to Nicklas Backstrom. A Capitals overtime victory was sealed by an unbelievable individual effort from the Great Eight himself, skating coast-to-coast for the game-winner.
FINAL HIGHLIGHTS: @backstrom19 ties it w/ 5 secs left & @Ovi8 seizes OT Game Winner https://t.co/NYPMflUAbb #CapsNYR pic.twitter.com/Q9hQdPQdt5
— Washington Capitals (@washcaps) January 9, 2016
It’s the regular season, but it does something for the psyche to win these types of games. Defenseman Karl Alzner talked to ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun regarding the clubs’ resiliency:
“That’s what we were talking about yesterday on the plane and on the bus–it was huge for us to be able to win the way we did against Tampa and against the Rangers, to come back like we did in those games, and not just come back but do it against teams who are really good quality opponents. We feel good. We’re a confident bunch.”
Nevermind that the Tampa Bay Lightning and Rangers are not playing up to their typical standards at this juncture. The Capitals are winning hockey games in a variety of ways. That will prove vital come playoff time.
Key offseason acquisitions include forward T.J. Oshie, and the invaluable playoff leadership of three-time Stanley Cup champion Justin Williams, who has 78 career points in the playoffs.
Trotz pointed out that previous-Caps teams may not have addressed playoff failures as much. However, he was quick to point out that it will come down to April, May and June as to how this team will be remembered.
“We talk about it all the time. We’re not ignoring that. I think in the past they’ve tried to ignore that a bit. We’re not. We know this franchise hasn’t done anything in the playoffs. We’ve had our failures. We need to get by the Rangers. We can go pretty deep but we haven’t been able to get by the Rangers in three straight playoff series. I’ve been here for one, but we got to get that out of the way.”
It would be ironic to say this Caps team might be better when Ovechkin isn’t on the same typical scoring pace—still on pace for 51 goals and 77 points—as in seasons past. But this team is deeper in offensive depth. The Capitals roster contains a number of players that can contribute on any given night. Among the reasons that lend hope in burying those playoff demons.
“Ovie isn’t having as good a year production-wise, but he’s having a better year positionally” Trotz told LeBrun in December. One wouldn’t have to look much farther than his plus-21, a full 180 from his minus-35 two seasons ago.
Over the last three games, Ovechkin has five goals.
The Caps and several players have been the recipient of major hardware the last few seasons, and likely will receive more this year. The only one this team cares about is the one at the end of June.
“Hey, we’re all going to be judged on how far we go in the spring. We recognize that. But this group doesn’t want the season to end. They’re having too much fun.”
As of now, the Capitals have been getting by without the services of defenseman Brooks Opik—on long-term injured reserve with a lower-body injury—center Jay Beagle, out six weeks with a broken hand and defenseman John Carlson, sidelined with a lower-body injury.
Even with the injuries, the Capitals have not missed a beat and are putting together something special in the Nation’s capital.