This could be the year the Caps make it past the second round of the playoffs.
The Washington Capitals have not reached the Stanley Cup Finals since the Detroit Red Wings swept them in 1997-98. In fact, the Capitals have not made it past the second round of the playoffs since their one and only Finals appearance.
Although the Caps have struggled to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, they have certainly enjoyed success during the regular season. From 2007-08 to 2010-11, the Caps finished first in the Southeast Division, but proceeded each time to lose in either the first or second round of the postseason. Even though they faced defeat early in the playoffs, the Capitals impressively won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2009-10 when they finished the regular season with the most points in the league (121).
The club finished second in the division in 2011-12 and played in the conference semifinals, but fell to the New York Rangers in seven games. Additionally, the Caps held the division title in 2012-13 before losing to the Rangers in another seven-game series, this time in the first round of the playoffs.
In 2013-14, the Capitals finished fifth in the Metropolitan Division and did not qualify for the playoffs. Last season, the Caps placed second in the division with 101 points. They beat the Islanders in seven games in the first round, but ultimately lost to the Rangers in the second round. Apparently, the Rangers have been the Capitals’ kryptonite in their last three playoff appearances.
During the past several regular seasons, most of the Caps’ playoff exits have been determined in seven games. Clearly, the Capitals have had the talent to reach the postseason and compete, but they haven’t been able to make a deep run. This year, though, the Caps are finally prepared to rewrite their typical story.
So, what’s different about this year’s team compared to the Capitals of the recent past? There are several factors that distinguish this team from other disappointing Capitals squads. The team leads the league in wins with 44, despite playing just 58 games. The Chicago Blackhawks, who have played 62 games, are second in wins with 38. The Capitals are 44-10-4 with 92 points and have an impressive 18-point lead over the New York Rangers, their playoff kryptonite, in the Metropolitan Division. The Capitals have gone 9-1-0 in their last ten games and are on a four-game winning streak.
The team is composed of highly skilled, experienced, and mature players. In the past, Alex Ovechkin has dealt with his fair share of criticism for being selfish and defensively-weak. However, Ovechkin has developed into a more balanced player and has continued to rely on his incredible offensive skills all season. Ovechkin currently leads the league in goals (39) over Patrick Kane (35). If Ovechkin holds on to the lead, he will win his fourth consecutive Maurice“Rocket” Richard trophy and the sixth of his career.
According to SportingCharts, Ovechkin’s numbers have decreased in individual offensive categories such as scoring and scoring percentage since 2012. He has gone from scoring 1.16 points per game to 0.98 point per game this season. However, it seems that his focus has become more defensive-minded and team-oriented. For instance, he blocked just 32 shots last season and has already accumulated 24 blocks this season. In addition, Ovechkin finished last season with a -10 plus-minus rating and is already +23 this season, good for third in the NHL.
In addition to Ovechkin’s evolution, the Capitals have other depth players who make this year’s team a serious championship contender. Evgeny Kuznetsov currently leads the Caps with 62 points (18 goals, 44 assists) and has quickly become one of their best players in his second full season. In 80 games last year, Kuznetsov scored just 37 points (11 goals, 26 assists), finished with a +10 plus-minus rating, and notched only one game-winning goal and one overtime goal. This season, in just 58 games, Kuznetsov has clearly surpassed his previous benchmark for goals, assists, and points. He has already tallied four game-winning goals and two overtime goals. His +31 plus-minus rating leads the league, and he ranks third in assists and fifth in points in the NHL.
Another player that is responsible for the Caps’ domination is goaltender Braden Holtby, who has been an early frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy for a few months. He currently leads all goaltenders in wins (38) and has a 2.17 goals against average and a 92.4 save percentage. Holtby’s goals against average and save percentage stats have not been better since 2010-11, in which he only played 14 games. He has been a guiding force for this Caps team and is playing at an elite level.
The result of these individual players’ talents is the entire team’s success. This season, the Caps have scored 181 goals, good for second in the NHL, while only allowing 132 goals, which leads the league. In addition, the Caps score an average of 3.29 goals — more than any other team — and allow only 2.28 goals per game, a number which is good for second in the league. Even the Caps’ special teams are firing on all cylinders: their power play is the best in the league (23.2%), and their penalty kill ranks fourth in the NHL (84.8%).
After the Capitals missed the playoffs for the second time in seven years, head coach Adam Oates was fired and replaced with Barry Trotz. In his first season as the Caps’ head coach last year, Trotz helped the team finish in second place in the division and reach the second round of the playoffs. With another year of experience under his belt, Trotz can hopefully lead the team even further this season. Trotz has never made it past the second round of the playoffs, but it could be his year to take the Capitals all the way to the Finals.
The evolution of players like Ovechkin and Kutznetsov and the overall talent on this team have combined to turn the Caps into an impressive team. Although Ovechkin may have had better seasons in terms of scoring, he has never been as selfless. More importantly, the entire Capitals team has never looked more balanced or focused on the bigger picture, and their league-leading stats speak for themselves. This team poses a significant threat that hasn’t been nearly as palpable in the past few years.
With the tragic fall of the Montreal Canadiens and the surprising meteoric rise of the Florida Panthers, the Capitals have been the strongest and most consistent team in the Eastern Conference throughout the entire season. Although regular season success does not predict playoff success, the 2015-16 Washington Capitals seem very different from teams of the recent past. It would not be surprising if the Caps, and Barry Trotz, overcome their second-round hurdle, and ultimately reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 18 years.
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