With the All-Star break now behind us, it’s time to look at the standings and begin to think about the playoffs. One of the storylines hockey fans have followed is the dominance of the Washington Capitals, who have become a true NHL powerhouse. The Capitals lead the league with 74 points as of Thursday. The team has allowed the fewest goals in the league while scoring the second most. The Caps also have the best power-play in the league, currently operating at 25.3 percent, and the seventh best penalty kill (83.8 percent). Incredibly, the team has not yet lost 10 games in regulation even though the season is more than halfway over.
Even for a strong team that had an especially effective offseason, the Capitals have turned heads around the NHL with such an amazing stretch, one of the best starts in NHL history. The team has also been able to win without key players, including star defenseman John Carlson, who only recently returned to the lineup after missing the majority of January. Of course, the Capitals have been known to have strong regular season efforts only to see them spoiled with poor showings in the playoffs. The Capitals won the Southeast Division five times in six years between the 2007-08 and 2012-13 seasons, including a 121-point campaign in 2009-10 that saw them take home the franchise’s first President’s Trophy. That season ended with a first-round playoff loss to the Montreal Canadians, just one of several frustrating postseason exists.
Despite those division titles, the Capitals never made it past the second round of the playoffs, earning the title of “chokers” despite their excellent regular season play. So for all the excitement surrounding the franchise right now, this season will be judged by the postseason results. Experts, however, believe the Capitals can pull it off this year. A poll of coaches and players said the Capitals were most likely to win the Stanley Cup, according to Yahoo Sports.
Predicting hockey outcomes can be tough, but Gambling.com has a great resource for people looking to place action on the games, whether you want to bet on a single night, on who will emerge as the Stanley Cup champion or simply to keep up with everything going on. It’s worth noting that the Capitals may be a good long-term bet for the Stanley Cup, as their recent playoff failures have them pegged as a dark horse even though their regular season play continues to excel.
The offseason acquisitions of T.J. Oshie from the St. Louis Blues and Justin Williams via free agency have already paid off in spades. The Capitals have the best group of top-six forwards of the Alex Ovechkin era, and both Oshie and Williams have consistently produced offensively so far this year. Further, Williams will be a key asset come playoff time given his tremendous experience and success; Williams has three Stanley Cup’s and is nicknamed “Mr. Game 7” for a reason. But one of the biggest reasons for the Capitals’ success so far this season is the play of Evgeny Kuznetsov.
The 23-year-old Russian has emerged this season as a breakout star, making his first All-Star appearance and leading the league in plus/minus with a plus-25 rating. He also leads the Capitals in points with 51 and assists with 36. Most importantly, he has made the Capitals’ second line as potent as the first, providing offensive firepower when Ovechkin is not on the ice. For the Capitals to have playoff success, they will need players other than Ovechkin to handle the scoring load. For all the Capitals’ success in the regular season, teams have been able to neutralize Ovechkin in the playoffs; now that Washington has more offensive depth throughout the lineup, the Capitals could be very dangerous in the playoffs.
For all his greatness, Ovechkin is much more of a finisher than a playmaker. Though his all-around game has improved since the arrival of head coach Barry Trotz, the Capitals are best when Ovechkin’s only mission is to put the puck in the net. His goal totals always rank among the league bests, but involving teammates was never a major strength. As the Washington Post explains, Kuznetsov, who was just named the NHL’s First Star of the month, has proven to be a stellar playmaker. More than anything else, he can get his teammates involved. If he continues to play at this level, it will make the Capitals a very tough out in the playoffs.
Another key component of the Capitals’ tremendous success this season is the play of goaltender Braden Holtby. Holtby is among the league leaders in goals-against average and save percentage, and he leads the league in wins with 30. Holtby is in line to take home the Vezina Trophy as the best goaltender in the league, and with a strong supporting cast in front of him, he could end up being even more dominant in the postseason as he has been in recent years. With all of these things in mind, it’s fair to say that this may end up being the Caps’ year to win it all, a long time coming in the eyes of many diehard hockey fans.