After years of frustration, the Washington Capitals could be ready to march to their first Stanley Cup title in franchise history.
This isn’t the first time someone’s made that prediction. During the Rod Langway era in the 1980s, the Capitals exceeded 100 points three times but couldn’t get past the second round of the playoffs. Led by Olaf Kolzig and Peter Bondra, they reached the 1998 Stanley Cup Final before falling the Detroit Red Wings, then failed to build upon that promise.
In 2010, powered by a high-octane offense led by Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals won their first President’s Trophy in franchise history. However, they were upset in the opening round of the playoffs by an underdog Montreal Canadiens roster.
At the midpoint of 2015-16, the Capitals are atop the NHL’s overall standings and dominating the Eastern Conference. Entering mid-January, they’ve won eight of their last 10 games, becoming the first club to reach 30 victories this season. They have roughly as many wins on the road (16) as they do at home (15).
So, what’s the difference between this year’s Caps roster and those that came up short in the past?
For one, they have a deeper, better-balanced lineup. The Caps clubs of the 1980 relied mainly on their defensive play. The 1998 Cup Finalists got there largely because of Kolzig’s goaltending. The 2010 Caps were an offensive powerhouse.
This time around, the Caps are in all areas. After 40 games, they led the league in goals (128) while giving up the fewest (86). They had the second-best power play (25.4 percent), with the sixth-best penalty kill (84.7 percent). The Capitals were tenth in shots-per-game while giving up the ninth-fewest (28.6).
Their only real weakness thus far is in the faceoff circle, where they’re twentieth overall at 49.6 percent. The recent addition of veteran center Mike Richards could boost those numbers. They could also look toward the trade market for an affordable face-off man.
The Capitals offense continues to be anchored by captain Ovechkin, who remains among the league’s top goalscorers. However, Ovie no longer has to carry the bulk of the scoring. Center Nicklas Backstrom had 37 points in as many games. In his sophomore NHL season, young Evgeny Kuznetsov is blossoming into an offensive star. They’re further bolstered by offseason additions T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams.
On defense, John Carlson remains one of the league’s best all-around blueliners. Matt Niskanen looks far more comfortable in his second season with the Capitals. Karl Alzner and Dmitri Orlov have improved. Their blueline should get a boost by the return from injury of veteran shutdown rearguard Brooks Orpik.
In goal, Braden Holtby leads all NHL netminders in wins. He is among the league leaders in goals-against average (1.90) and save percentage (.933). Consensus among NHL pundits and bloggers have Holtby as the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy this season.
Over the past two years, general manager Brian MacLellan has done a fine job in the past two seasons retooling this roster into a dominant force again. His best move, however, was hiring former Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz as his bench boss.
It’s Trotz who’s molded this roster into a powerful two-way force. He’s got Ovechkin buying into playing a strong game at both ends of the ice, and that’s carried over throughout the roster. Rather than riding a strength in one particular area, or in a handful of talented stars, the Capitals play a complete team game.
Of course, there’s still a long way to go in this season. Injuries could start to take a toll upon the lineup. Key players could fatigue and slump. Other clubs could overtake them as the dominant team in the league. As many players on this current Caps roster already know, an early upset in the playoffs by an underdog team is always possible.
Yet this version of the Capitals appears to be one all pulling in the same direction. They believe in their system. They’re confident in their ability and depth. They don’t rattle easily if they blow a lead.
The remainder of this season will ultimately determine the true mettle of this squad. If they maintain their current high level of play, the Capitals could be poised for a serious Stanley Cup run this spring.