WASHINGTON — The more things change, the more they remain the same. That famous proverb certainly applies to the Washington Capitals.
The Caps entered the 2017-18 season with a lot of question marks, despite posting the NHL’s best regular season record in the previous two regular seasons. And yet, they head into the second-half of this season sitting atop of their division once again — this despite losing six players from last year’s team and replacing them with three rookies and two young projects.
Coach Barry Trotz expected a bumpy ride early this season. The Caps had that, but even he’s a bit surprised at how well they’ve been playing.
“A little bit,” Trotz said, “but not totally surprised. A lot of people thought there was going to be a crash and burn and, at times early, it looked like that. But I knew that we just needed some time to heal and find our way a little bit. I think we’ve been able to do that.”
Indeed they have. After going 5-7 in October, the Capitals have won 23 of their last 33 games. At 28-14-3, they have just two fewer wins than they did at this exact point last year.
Defenseman Brooks Orpik cites the competitive Metropolitan Division — no team in the division currently has a losing record — as a reason that’s somewhat surprising but added, “Because of the work ethic that we have here, I’m not surprised in a certain sense.”
Fellow defenseman Matt Niskanen echoed Orpik’s sentiments. “There was some uncertainty with our group with the changeover in personnel, and it wasn’t going that well early.”
“But we’ve made some real strong efforts in a few areas and guys have bought into that and played harder than we did at the beginning of the year, so we’re having more success,” he added.
No one is having more success than Alex Ovechkin. “The Great 8” is defying his age and living up to his nickname by leading the league with 28 goals at 32 years old. Ovie is on pace for his eighth 50-goal season and is also just two assists shy of reaching 500 for his career.
Ovechkin shows no signs of slowing down, either. In fact, he’s skating faster now than in recent years. Career-wise, he has nearly 600 goals and 500 assists in less than 1,000 games. When the Capitals lost Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson from last year’s team, they knew they would need more from their captain, and Ovechkin has delivered.
But Ovie isn’t doing it alone. Four other players on the team also have double-digit goals, including winger Brett Connolly.
Connolly said of the new players: “I think the young guys have brought a different element to our team: a little more speed and a little more skill. Obviously, we lost some good players, but the young guys have come in and done a good job and worked at their game.”
The Capitals are scoring nearly as many goals this season as last, but they’ve given up 30 more. Braden Holtby is still solid in net, but with two new defensemen, Trotz admits that part of their game is still a work in progress.
“We can be better in some of our decision-making and puck management areas, and I think we can be better in our own end,” Trotz said.
He added, “I like the fact that we’re skating right now and that creates a lot of space for us.”
However, when it comes to the Metropolitan Division, space is as tight as a New York apartment. Only eight points separate the top four teams.
But that fourth team is the Pittsburgh Penguins, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion, so the Capitals’ chief nemesis is still lurking.
Unlike the previous two years, Trotz believes it will be a fight to the finish. “The games are going to get quicker; they’re going to get more intense,” he said. “There are so many teams in the fight for a playoff spot, it’s going to be playoff mode from this time on.”
But Trotz believes in his reconfigured team, saying, “The group has found their own new identity with some of the old traits in it.”
A playoff spot seems a given for the Capitals this year. After that, though … well, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.
Let’s see how much further they progress the final three months of the season.
But, admit it: How many of you saw them in first place at the midway point?
Maybe another surprise awaits.