It might have taken them three quarters of the 2013 season, but the Washington Capitals have finally taken control of the Southeast division.
On Sunday, the surging Caps beat the Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-2, and took over sole possession of first place in the Southeast division for the first time all season. The Caps' dreadful 2-8-1 start to the season now seems like a distant memory.
Over their past 10 games, no team in the NHL has been as hot as the Caps. Washington is 8-1-1 in its last 10 games. Only the San Jose Sharks, with an identical 8-1-1 mark, have been that hot. With a four-game winning streak, the Caps and the St. Louis Blues have the longest current winning streaks in the NHL.
At the center of this heat wave has been Alexander Ovechkin. Many of us—myself included—really thought Ovi's best days were behind him. Well, we were all wrong.
During the Caps' 10-game blitzkrieg to the top of the Southeast division, Ovechkin has scored 13 goals, had six assists and he is now tied with Steven Stamkos for the NHL lead in goals scored. Ovi is on such a tear that not even interference from the Lighting bench in the waning moments of the game on Sunday could prevent Ovi from scoring an empty net goal.
But the Caps have certainly not been a one-man show during the past couple of weeks. Nicklas Backstrom has 13 assists over the past 10 games, and he has been paired up with Ovechkin quite a lot.
Is there any coincidence that Backstrom has the same number of assists over the past 10 games as Ovi has goals?
Marcus Johansson has 10 assists over those past 10 games. Naturally, he has been playing a lot on the Caps top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom.
Mike Green has six goals over the past 10 games, and he has reminded everyone just how dangerous an offensive threat he can be when he is healthy.
Without question, the Caps have gotten contributions from many of their top players as they have surged to the top of the Southeast division. But with just nine games remaining in the regular season, it is safe to say the Caps are in the home stretch of the season.
Now that the Caps have rounded the final turn, the big question is which of their players has to get hot down the home stretch to finish what would be an amazing turnaround of a season?
While Ovi, Backstrom, MoJo and Green have done a fantastic job in putting the Caps in a position where they control their own destiny, the Caps will need others to step up and contribute more than they have if the Caps hope to recapture the Southeast division title and to advance deep in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Which players need to get hot for the Caps during this stretch run?
Here are three who come to mind.
Can Martin Erat justify what George McPhee gave up to get him?
The man at the center of one of the most controversial trades in Washington Capitals' history not only needs to get hot—he needs to become an inferno on ice down the home stretch.
Of course, I am talking about Martin Erat. At the trade deadline, the Caps acquired Erat and minor league prospect Michael Latta from the Nashville Predators, but they paid a heavy price to do so, as they traded one of the best prospects in the entire organization, Filip Forsberg, to the Preds to complete the deal (The Washington Post).
It was a trade that was quite unpopular on many of the Caps' social network sites and was heavily debated by many Caps' fans. Regardless, by trading Forsberg for Erat, general manager George McPhee sent a strong message that the Caps were going all-in for the rest of the season.
As McPhee said to the The Washington Post's Katie Carrera:
You’re here to win. We’ve been in that mode for a while. This is six years of trying to win a Cup. We had our rebuild phase, we sort of rebuilt things on the fly here, but we’d like to continue to make the playoffs while we’re doing it. They’re never easy decisions.
It takes some guts to do deals sometimes. With respect to giving up young players, you’ve got to be careful doing that, but we’ve drafted well enough that we can do it. And I wanted to help this team now.
Without question then, there will be immense pressure on Erat to not just perform but to perform at an enormously high level.
While in Nashville, Erat was one of the most valuable players in Predators' history. He ranks second in Predators' franchise history in career points (481), goals (163), assists (318), games played (723) and game-winning goals (26) ( per NHL.com). If he can repeat some of that success in D.C., he will make McPhee look like a genius.
But in his past 10 games, Erat had not exactly been lighting the world on fire. He had just one goal over that time frame, although he did have seven assists. Obviously, if Erat is going to help lead the Caps to some place they have not been since 1998—namely the Eastern Conference Finals and beyond—then Erat will have to play much better.
He is off to a rough start. In his first game as a Cap, against the New York Islanders, he played over 14 minutes, but had no goals or assists.
In his second game, on Saturday against the Florida Panthers, Erat was the victim of a vicious boarding penalty from the Panthers' Erik Gudbranson. Erat had to be helped off the ice and did not return. He did not play on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
With Erat and Brooks Laich both dealing with injuries now (The Washington Post)—and with it sounding like Erat is the healthier of the two—the Caps will need to get Erat back into the lineup, and get him producing, as quickly as possible if Washington wants to maintain its winning ways.
What has happened to Jason Chimera this season?
Jason Chimera has been so cold during the 2013 season that he makes Antarctica in December look like a tropical paradise.
His decline this season has been nothing short of shocking, particularly when you look at what he did last season.
Last season was a breakout season for Chimera. He had a career high with 20 goals, double the total he had the previous season. It was the first time Chimera had ever had a 20-goal season.
To go with his 20 goals, Chimera added 19 assists.
In the playoffs, Chimera continued his stellar play with four goals and three assists. Suffice it to say, expectations for Jason Chimera were quite high entering the season.
Chimera has completely failed to live up to those expectations this season. He has only one goal the entire season. That's right—just one. He has nine assists, though, which has him ranked ahead of Mathieau Perreault, Eric Fehr and Mike Green.
What is really troubling is Chimera's minus-eight efficiency rating, which is dead last on the Caps. It is a very confusing downturn, as when Chimera is on his game, he is deceptively quick and is an underrated scoring threat.
For whatever reason, Chimera has just not been on his game all season. Shortened season or not, Chimera is well on pace to have his worst statistical season ever as a pro.
The Caps desperately need Chimera to step up his game considerably. If Brooks Laich is going to miss more time due to the lingering problem with his groin injury or if the Caps are going to be without Martin Erat for some time, then the Caps become very thin as far as forwards are concerned.
If the Caps do end up making the playoffs, then having a productive Chimera would provide the Caps with the depth they will need to compete with the better teams in the Eastern Conference.
Chimera is absolutely a player who needs to get hot for the Caps in the home stretch.
Mike Ribeiro's numbers have been off the past few games.
Many of you may be wondering just what the heck I am talking about here. After all, Mike Ribeiro has been having an MVP-caliber season for the Caps so far in 2013.
Indeed, it was just about three weeks ago that Ribeiro was tied for the team lead in goals with Alexander Ovechkin and was leading the team in assists and also in points.
On the power play, Ribeiro became the quarterback, and his ability to set up Ovechkin for power-play goals was uncanny. Ribs has been a key reason why the Caps have the best power play in the NHL, currently operating at 25.2 percent efficiency.
For the season, Ribeiro has 12 goals and 26 assists. He is third on the Caps in goals and points and second on the team in assists. So, without question, Ribeiro has been having a great season.
But take a closer look at what he has done during the Caps' 10-game surge. Ribeiro has only two goals and only four assists over that span. While Ribs has been playing strong, tough hockey, there is little disputing the fact that his production over the past couple of weeks has been somewhat off.
Part of that might have had to do with all the uncertainty over whether Ribeiro was going to be traded at the deadline. Ribs is an unrestricted free agent at season's end, and speculation was rampant that Ribeiro might be moved if an agreement on a contract extension could not be reached.
As we all know, no trade happened, and Ribeiro remains a member of the Washington Capitals—at least for now.
Another factor that might have a great deal to do with Ribs' recent struggles has been the fact that Ovechkin has been paired up much more frequently with Nicklas Backstrom and not so much with Ribeiro.
While Ovi and Backstrom have been on fire lately, Ribeiro has been paired up lately with Eric Fehr—who is also struggling to recapture his scoring touch—and Troy Brouwer.
Perhaps with all the pressure of the trade deadline having been removed, we will see Ribeiro revert to the form he had earlier in the season when he was so dominant.
If the Caps are going to nail down the Southeast division—and possibly aspire for even more—then having Ribeiro get hot during the stretch run will be crucial.