WASHINGTON — It took the Capitals a half-season to return to familiar territory — atop the NHL. And it appears they want to stay there for the second straight year. Here’s a look back at some of the highlights from the season’s first half.
During their nine-straight wins, the Caps outscored their opponents 40-11. Then, following their wild 8-7 overtime loss at Pittsburgh, bounced back with another seven-goal effort in bouncing the Blues 7-3 in St. Louis.
The Capitals have scored at least five goals in eight of their last 11 games for the first time since December 1992.
The win streak came against most of the NHL’s best and hottest teams. They stopped the 16-game Columbus winning streak, the 5-game runs by both Toronto and Pittsburgh, knocked off first-place Montreal, and finished their streak with back-to-back shutouts with two different goalies. Those wins came against Chicago — the best team in the west, and the Flyers, who are trying to hold on to their playoff position.
But it’s not just the offense that’s flying high, as the Caps are getting it done at both ends of the ice. For the first time in franchise history, they recorded four shutouts in six games.
Until their loss to the Penguins, the Caps hadn’t allowed an even-strength goal in six-straight games. During the streak, they allowed two or fewer goals in eight of nine games.
They have the best defense in the league while scoring the fifth-most goals. They’re among the NHL’s best in goal differential. They have managed to combine the offense of Bruce Boudreau with the defense of Barry Trotz.
Talk to any general manager or coach, and he’ll tell you it all starts with the goalie. And the Capitals have one of the best in the league in Braden Holtby — last year’s Vezina Trophy winner. He may be even better this season with six shutouts — tops in the NHL — while ranking fourth in goals against average (1.99).
Meanwhile, a team that has relied on its power play success in the past is instead third-best in the penalty kill.
The Caps came into this season wanting more balanced scoring, and it’s really taking shape. Chemistry has been key, as Coach Trotz has kept all four lines intact for about a month and they’re starting to click, even now the newly rebuilt third line. Andre Burakovsky has scored the opening goal the last three games, Brett Connolly has four goals the past six games, and center Lars Eller is getting hot with six points in five games.
Plus, the defense is getting offensive, with blue-liners combining for 84 assists, second most in the league.
The Capitals have been in this position before, of course, winning the President’s Trophy twice in seven years. However, that regular season success did not translate into postseason success.
For now, the players are accepting each challenge placed in front of them.
“This team seems to play better against good teams,” said Holtby. “The last few years we’ve done that. I don’t know if we get excited when it’s good hockey forcing us to play faster, more of our game, I’m not sure. We’ve really worked hard since the start of the year to try and build our game. Throw a little bit of adversity in there and now we can see the work is proving the work.”
In their demeanor and play, the Capitals are focused and even-keeled. In addition to any chip that may be on their shoulder, this may be their last chance to win the Stanley Cup together.
As many as 10 player contracts could expire at the end of the season. Those include TJ Oshie, Karl Alzner and Justin Williams, all slated to become unrestricted free agents.
Williams has been on three championship teams. He knows a good thing when he sees it. And, while he enjoyed the winning streak, knows they can learn from the way it ended.
“It was a good reality check, just to say you’re not that good,” he said. “You still got to work on things and it’s not gonna come easy for you.”
And it hasn’t. It’s been an improving process. The Capitals’ offense sputtered the first two months of the season, but has been asserting itself the past two.
The Capitals are only halfway to April, but it’s been a good ride so far. All signs point to it being an even longer and enjoyable one going forward.