Changes taking hold as Caps streak through midway point

WASHINGTON — Picked by many to spend the season as a mediocre team on the fringe of the playoff picture, the Washington Capitals have quietly taken the NHL by storm over the past six weeks. After beginning the second half of the season with a 2-1 victory over Colorado, snapping the Avalanche’s three-game winning streak, the Caps are 23-11-8, their 54 points just five shy of the top mark in the Eastern Conference.

Considering the way the season started, you could call their success a surprise.

Washington stumbled badly out of the gate, and an early five-game skid left them at just 4-5-3. After a 4-3 home loss to Vancouver to start December, the Caps were still just 10-10-4, having allowed as many goals as they’d scored. But since then, Washington is 13-1-4, earning a point in 17 of their 18 contests. They have outscored opponents by 19 goals over that stretch, giving them the fourth-best goal differential in the conference.

The proof is in the numbers. Going into Wednesday night’s matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers at Verizon Center, the Caps rank eighth in both goals scored and goals against per game. They have the league’s fourth-best power play at 24 percent, with their singular scoring star, Alex Ovechkin, leading the way. His 10 power-play goals are best in the Eastern Conference.

But how has it all come together, especially after such an uninspired start?

“I think the preparation’s been pretty good,” said Caps goalie Braden Holtby after practice at Kettler Ice Complex in Ballston on Tuesday. “Every day you have a new challenge.”

Terms like “preparation” are code words for coaching. Washington’s head coach, Bary Trotz, is new this year, but also a veteran of the league. Sometimes it takes a while to get the hang of a new boss’s style, to listen to a new voice from the top. If the last 18 games are any indication, the feeling-out process is long behind the Caps when it comes to Trotz.

As far as center Brooks Laich is concerned, a big reason has been Trotz’s patience with the lines, letting units play together and develop a rapport, allowing those relationships to grow organically.

“We’ve joked in the past around here that we’ve played musical chairs with our lines all the time,” he said. “Now, you go to sleep, waking up the next day before you come to the rink you know who you’re going to play with; you know the line you’re going to match up against…there’s not a lot of surprises, which makes it really easy to play.”

Trotz gives his players credit for growing with one another, developing the understanding that helps elevate each individual’s game.

“They’re taking ownership on their line and trying to figure out where they can be successful,” he said. “When you get a group of guys together on a line, you want to find those nuances that make you effective. You always go farther when you do everything as a group.”

Braden Holtby and the Caps look for revenge against the Philadelphia Flyers Wednesday night in D.C. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Braden Holtby and the Caps look for revenge against the Philadelphia Flyers Wednesday night in D.C. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Trotz’s hands-off approach — one which recalls that of former Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson while guiding that franchise to its first two winning seasons — may be serving Holtby best of all. The netminder has played in 37 of Washington’s 42 games, the second-highest total in the NHL. He’s played every game since Nov. 18, a stretch of 25 straight.

“The fact that there’s been a lot of work, it’s been easier to get in a rhythm that way,” Holtby said. “As a goalie, it makes it much easier to prepare when you know you don’t have to steal a game for your team, where you can just focus on your job and you know there’s a very good chance you’re going to win the game.”

There have been contributions from all around the ice, though. The defense has improved greatly, allowing nearly half a goal a game less than last season. The Caps have gotten great contributions from the rookie duo of Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who have pitched in 15 points apiece. Ovechkin has continued to do what he does, but has not been relied upon to single-handedly save the franchise.

In so doing, Washington has won a lot of close contests over this 18-game tear, with 6 of the 13 victories coming by a single goal. While they wouldn’t mind a few blowouts here and there, Laich knows the importance of learning how to win close games, especially come springtime.

“From games 60 to 80, you’re in all close hockey games,” he explained. “And then, obviously, playoffs are all close hockey games. Later on in the year…you want to have that experience of how to close teams out and suffocate them.”

Another good sign for the Caps’ potential postseason success has been their success on the road. They’ve already netted 28 road points, picking up at least one point in 16 of 22 road games. That track record, along with a goalie who has proven the ability to get hot for a prolonged streak, should give Washington fans some cautious optimism about what this team might be able to achieve.

“We’re really getting the game-changing save almost every game,” said Laich about the biggest difference in this year’s team. “It’s just a really big calming influence on the game, and it makes us want to play better in front of him.”

If Holtby is standing on his head, anything’s possible.

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