What a difference a year makes, huh?
At the conclusion of January last season, the Caps were still languishing in the middle of the Southeast pack, and trying to overcome a horrid start to the year.
As we wrap up the first month of 2009, Washington is 12 points clear of their nearest rival (Carolina, for what it's worth) in the Southeast Division, and their 59 points trails only the surprisingly-competent Bruins in the whole Eastern Conference.
After needing to win 11 of their final 12 games to squeak in the playoffs in the 2007-2008 campaign, Washington looks poised to be wire-to-wire division leaders and a strong force in the East's playoff bracket.
The DC fowards are led by—who else?—Alexander Ovechkin. Tied for the league lead in goals, second on the team in assists, general spark plug for the team, Ovie has cemented himself as (arguably) the finest player in the game.
Pittsburgh's Crosby/Malkin duo have demonstrated similar skills with the puck, but neither of them have the physicality or enthusiasm that Ovechkin brings to the table.
The Great 8's performance in the Jan. 14 game between Washington and Pittsburgh—two goals and an assist in a four-goal third period to wrest control of the game and the two points from the Penguins—show his ability to hoist the team on his back and take over games.
The other Alexander, the unfortunate nomenclature which befell Alexander Semin as soon as Ovechkin pulled on a Capitals sweater, missed 18 games with injury this fall, but has still manged to post 17 goals and 38 points this year, as he continues his development into the elite player Washington envisioned him as when they took him with the 13th overall pick in 2002.
He also provided one of the worst fights in NHL history—not so much punching the startled Marc Staal as executing a drum solo (or a one-man catfight, depending how cynical your view of the Russian winger is) on his head.
Nicklas Backstrom, the Swedish-born first-round pick of the Caps in 2006, hasn't experienced much of a sophomore slump in his second year, as he leads the team with 36 assists and his 48 points are good enough for 12th in the NHL.
Tomas Fleischmann, Micheal Nylander, and the seemingly-ageless Sergei Fedorov have also had scoring contributions from the lower lines, giving valuable offensive depth on the rare night that the first line isn't producing sufficient output.
The defense has been less a lineup than a revolving door with all the injuries that have befallen Washington in the first half of the year. Mike Green, the team's best scorer from the backline, was sidelined for 13 games and was considered one of the lucky ones. Tom Poti, Jeff Schultz, and John Erskine, all of whom were penciled in as regulars, have missed even more significant chunks of time.
The lengthy invalid list thrust rookies and other AHL players into prominent roles on the team. Defensemen like Karl Alzner and Bryan Helmer (the AHL career leader in games played, at 36 years young) found themselves playing regularly with the big club. Perhaps consequently, the Capitals are presently tied for 22nd in the league with 128 goals conceded.
The goaltending was one of the biggest questions facing Bruce Boudreau's men entering this season: the loss of Cristobal Huet, the hero of many a game during their crucial stretch run and brief playoff appearance was gone and management decided an upgrade from career backup Brent Johnson was necessary.
To that end, Jose Theodore was imported from Colorado, where he was sometimes impenetrable but maddeningly inconsistent.
And he remains maddeningly inconsistent in Washington. The good news is that he has put up 27 wins thus far, with a sub-3.00 GAA and a string of show-stopping saves. The bad news is he's working on a sub-.900 save percentage and a couple goals against that could be generously described as soft.
Johnson, seeing semi-regular action, has produced a score of victories and has been solid enough to inspire confidence on the nights that Theodore is on the bench.
Washington can score with anybody—their 139 goals scored is sixth in the NHL—and electric players like Ovechkin and Semin on the ice can make lots of things happen. I don't think any team relishes the prospect of trying to bottle up that top line for seven consecutive games.
The team looks set on offense for the postseason. I'd be surprised if they tinkered with that at all.
The defense has been suspect at times this year, despite the team's superb record. Thankfully, the Caps score enough that it's easy to overlook that at times, and the blue line has been absolutely killed by injuries to this point, so it would be natural to assume that things would be better as the team gets healthier.
Still, the team lacks a truly physical presence on the back line. Milan Jurcina is their biggest defenseman at 233 pounds, but he's rarely seen dropping the hammer on unsuspecting forwards and uses his bulk in a more efficient manner.
A real bell-ringer would be a great addition to this team—think of a poor-man's Dion Phaneuf. I wouldn't be surprised to see George McPhee try to deal for another blueliner at or before the trade deadline, using some of the impressive depth at forward the team has assembled—peharps somebody like Viktor Kozlov or Tomas Fleischmann will be dealt in March.
Bruce Boudreau has his team picking right up from where they've left off at the end of last season. With another year of seasoning on this very young squad, and an entire year under the impressive tutelage of Boudreau, the Capitals are set as one of the early favorites to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Finals this June.