Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…. We’re halfway through the NHL regular season and the Washington Capitals are leading their division, lead the league in points and are once again considered to be strong contenders for the Stanley Cup.
Sound familiar? Well, that’s because it should.
Over the last nine years, the Capitals have won their division six times and claimed the President’s Trophy (for leading the league in points) twice. In many of those instances, they were the favorite to win it all, but each season ended the same, with a first or second round playoff exit. While we don’t know how this season will end, the Capitals certainly find themselves in familiar territory.
The Caps are 29-9-6, first in the Metropolitan Division and they lead the league with 64 points. They also are tops in the league in goals against per game, are sixth in goals scored per game and have the 3rd best penalty killers among the rest of the pack.
It is safe to say they are living up to their preseason expectations of having 8-1 odds to win the 2017 Stanley Cup.
About the only knock you’ll find in this bunch of stats is they are only 14th on the power play. Washington is also fresh off a nine-game winning streak (ended with a crazy 8-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins) that saw them dominate Western Conference leading Chicago and end the Columbus Blue Jackets’ 15-game winning streak, just to send a reminder to both clubs who is tops in the league and the Metropolitan.
Throughout the course of it all, the team’s captain, Alex Ovechkin scored his 1,000th career point (on a great wrist shot just 35 seconds into a 5-2 win over Pittsburgh) becoming the second fastest player to reach that milestone (880 games) with only Jaromir Jagr getting there faster. So, with the first half of the season going like so many others, the big question is whether or not this team will be any different from the ones that have dazzled in regular season’s past, only to fall flat come playoff time. For long-suffering Caps fans, there is reason to hope.
For starters, this appears to be a more mature team as evidenced by the fact that they are spending more time focused on the game and less time criticizing officials for calls they felt were wrong or completely missed.
Another reason for optimism is that this year’s team seems deeper than previous years.
In their 8-7 loss to Pittsburgh, Ovechkin didn’t score a single goal but Lars Eller (acquired from Montreal before last June’s draft to give the team a third line center who could score) and several of the lesser known Caps lit the lamp often.
While maturity and depth can take you a long way during the grind that is the playoffs, the Caps still have some issues that need to be worked out.
While their GAA is the best in the league, the overall defense is not as good as last year. Braden Holtby is playing better in net than he was a year ago when he won the Vezina Trophy, so that has masked some of the deficiencies. But the biggest issue could be Ovechkin.
The Great Eight is currently on pace to score 42 goals, a respectable number, but far short of the 50 plus he has scored in each of the last three seasons. Regardless of scoring from other areas, the team will go as Ovi goes and they need their captain to regain a bit more of his scoring touch, especially because they are locked in a tight battle for their division and winning it could be the difference between an easier first and second round and a very tough path the conference finals, let alone the Stanley Cup Finals.