WASHINGTON — From extended winning streaks, to individual milestones, to a collection of dramatic victories, the Capitals have enjoyed a memorable second season under head coach Barry Trotz.
“Everyone in this room knows what we’re capable of,” goalie Braden Holtby said after a recent practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington. “We have bigger goals, obviously, than a strong regular season, but it’s nice to use this time to build good habits and to lay the groundwork for the playoffs.”
Consider it time well-spent. With one game remaining before the All-Star break, the Capitals lead the NHL with a 35-8-3 record (73 points) through 46 games. For perspective, the 2009-10 Capitals, who set franchise records with 54 wins and 121 points by season’s end, were 28-12-6 (62 points) at the same stage.
Six players remain from the 2009-10 club that won the Presidents’ Trophy for finishing atop the NHL’s overall standings. And while they can sense a similar swagger around this year’s team, they believe it is better equipped than its predecessor for a deep postseason run.
“I think this team doesn’t have as much Jekyll and Hyde as maybe that team did,” said Brooks Laich, who had career-highs of 25 goals and 59 points in 2009-10.
“That team could be down 4-1 and win 5-4 [as was the case Feb. 7, 2010 when the Capitals rallied to beat the Penguins during Snowmaggedon 2010], but with this team, we play a tighter game, and over the course of a game, we might lean on teams and then start pulling away by the end of it. It’s not so much of a roller coaster as maybe that team was.”
Led by Alex Ovechkin (50 goals), Alexander Semin (40 goals) and Nicklas Backstrom (33), the 2009-10 Capitals had the NHL’s top-ranked offense with an average of 3.82 goals-per-game. Washington also led the NHL in power play efficiency at 25.2 percent, and ranked third with 32.8 shots per game.
While the offense lifted the Capitals to a third straight Southeast Division title, a mediocre defensive game lagged behind. Washington ranked 16th with a 2.77 goals-against-average and 25th on the penalty kill (78.8 percent). A club so reliant on its ability to run up high goal totals made for plenty of entertaining nights at Verizon Center, but also drew criticism for its defensive shortcomings.
By contrast, the 2015-16 Capitals are a more complete package as they are the only team that ranks in the top-five in goals-per-game (1st), goals-against-average (1st), power play (1st) and penalty kill (5th).
“It’s different because we’re not playing high risk in order to get those goals and that’s what we were doing before,” said defenseman Karl Alzner, who played in 21 games as rookie in 2009-10.
“We were kind of like how Dallas is today — we were just going for it. We’re going to win the game 7-5 and that’s OK, because we felt we could always outscore the other team. The difference is that now we could shut it down when we have to, and really that’s the way the league is going towards. You have to be able to score lots of goals, but more importantly you have to limit the chances against, and that’s what we’re trying to get to right now.”
In jumping out to the best start in franchise history, the Capitals have not only scored goals in bunches, but they have also shown a knack for clamping down and securing leads. Washington is a league-best 25-1-0 when scoring first and 26-0-1 when leading at the second intermission.
“For sure, this team plays the odds a little more,” said Jason Chimera, who was traded to the Capitals in Dec. 2009 and has 13 goals and 27 points in 46 games this season.
“We play the right way for longer and we get rewarded that way rather than by taking chances or risks to create offense. Back then, we’d be down 5-1 or 5-2 and still come back to win games, so it was fun, but it obviously wasn’t the way you drew it up. The way we play now, I’d say it’s more according to plan.”
Besides a more predictable and conservative style of the play, the make up of the current Capitals also differs from what, up until now, has widely been considered the best team in franchise history.
Let’s start with experience, where come playoff time this year’s Capitals can lean on Stanley Cup champions Justin Williams, Mike Richards and Brooks Orpik, who have six championship rings between them. The 2009-10 team had one Stanley Cup champion on its roster, and Mike Knuble was already 12 years removed from hoisting the cup as a rookie with the Detroit Red Wings.
Behind the bench, Barry Trotz is working his 17th consecutive season as an NHL head coach and ranks in the top 10 all-time in both games coached and wins. Trotz has a tremendous grasp of the Capitals’ locker room and has made his players accountable from Day One (see: his benching of Alex Ovechkin in October after the Capitals captain slept through his alarm and missed practice).
Bruce Boudreau, meanwhile, was in his second full season behind an NHL bench when the 2009-10 Capitals blew a 3-games-to-1 lead in their first-round playoff series to the Montreal Canadiens.
This year’s Capitals have an undisputed No. 1 goalie in Holtby, who leads the NHL with a 30-5-2 record and is on pace to break Martin Brodeur’s single-season record of 48 wins set in 2006-07. Holtby recently went 22 straight decisions without a regulation loss (20-0-2) and is the midseason favorite to win the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie.
Back in 2009-10, Capitals starter Jose Theodore was already eight years removed from winning the Hart and Vezina Trophies with Montreal, when he was replaced in Game 2 of the playoffs by Semyon Varlamov.
Today’s Capitals also have a formidable 1-2 punch down the middle in Backstrom and NHL sophomore Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov enters play Wednesday as Washington’s leading scorer with 48 points in 46 games. During the club’s Presidents’ Trophy winning season six years ago, Washington struggled to find a complimentary second line center, going through a rotation which included Brendan Morrison, Tomas Fleishmann and Trade Deadline acquisition Eric Belanger.
“For sure, the confidence is up there,” said Backstrom, one of three Capitals heading to the All-Star Game next weekend in Nashville. “We’re very deep and I feel like we’re playing the right way now.
“Before it was more a case of taking big chances and then we’d score. We were all offense then and I feel like we have a better balance now and we’re playing the right way. So that’s why I think it’s maybe a bit different from ’09-10- obviously we’re scoring a lot but I think we’re doing it the right way now.”