5 Reasons to Believe This Is the Year for the Washington Capitals
With only five regular-season games remaining, first-year bench boss Barry Trotz looks primed to lead the Washington Capitals to the franchise's seventh Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance in eight years.
But while the postseason berths are nice, the Caps' lack of success beyond April has been a major storyline for this team since the Alex Ovechkin era began in 2005-06, and that's why Trotz was brought in last summer.
The hope was that Trotz could bring the same intensity and defensive posture that were trademarks of his teams during the 14 seasons he spent with the Nashville Predators, and at least 78 games in, there's a lot to like about the job he's done.
Yes, the Caps currently sit in danger of ending up as a wild card in the Eastern Conference, but even if that remains the case following April 11, this is not a squad to be taken lightly this spring.
This is a vastly different team than the one that missed the playoffs a year ago, so with that in mind, here's a look at five reasons to believe this could be the year the Caps advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1998.
5. The Ovechkin Factor
Since Trotz took over, it has been truly amazing to see how the hockey world's collective view of Alex Ovechkin has changed.
Alex Ovechkin was a lightning rod for criticism in 2013-14, despite leading the league with 51 goals, in large part due to his minus-35 rating.
Regardless of whether you consider plus-minus to be a useful measuring stick for on-ice production, the 29-year-old has been a far more complete player under Trotz, maybe even more so than his giant leap to a plus-11 rating would suggest.
Ovechkin's on pace for 33 blocked shots this season, which would be by far his highest total since Dale Hunter's time behind the bench. But under Hunter, Ovechkin's offensive numbers and ice time took hits, and that hasn't been the case with Trotz.
With five games left, the Russian sniper leads the pack by miles with 52 goals on the year, and at 79 points, he's got a shot at capturing his first Art Ross Trophy since 2007-08.
As far as his postseason shortcomings, it's easy to place the weight of the blame on Ovechkin, but it's hard to ignore the 61 points he's put up in 58 playoff games, even after registering a paltry two points in 2013.
He's without a doubt the most dominant scorer in the game, and if Washington's power play continues to produce (it sits first in the league at 24.4 percent), Ovechkin will be a difference-maker.
And at this point, he's more than due for his first career postseason overtime goal.
4. Stability in Goal
Washington entered the season hoping Braden Holtby would emerge as the team's clear-cut No. 1, and thus far, it's hard to imagine how the former fifth-rounder could've done more to do so.
Among the league's best in wins, goals-against average and save percentage, Holtby's carried a heavy workload admirably, demonstrating an even-keeled demeanor that will serve him well come playoff time.
After getting shelled by the Predators at home last Saturday, Holtby rebounded with a sparkling performance against the Rangers the following afternoon. He's confident in his game to a degree we haven't seen before, but maybe part of that is because he's always had at least one other capable goaltender to compete with.
The arrival of goaltending guru Mitch Korn seems to have something to do with the 25-year-old's growth as well, but regardless of the reason, Holtby's made a case for himself to be a dark-horse Vezina candidate.
That's not something we would've expected a year ago.
3. Style of Play
In March, Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post wrote a piece describing why Washington's label of being a perennial playoff disappointment was statistically unfair:
Since the spring of 1994, the Caps’ record in 14 trips to the playoffs has been exactly what you’d expect if you used modern methods, such as the Simple Rating System at pro-hockey-reference, to evaluate how good they actually were.
In the past 21 seasons, the Caps have been in 20 playoff series. Three times, they upset stronger teams, based on SRS, which combines goal-differential with strength of schedule. Three times, they did “choke” — in that they lost to foes that were statistically weaker. And 14 times the playoff series went as SRS would have predicted — the better team won. So 3-14-3 vs. SRS chalk.
So if you're willing to put weight into this metric, one can basically deduce that the Bruce Boudreau- and Adam Oates-era Caps squads benefitted heavily from beating up on Southeast Division rivals during the regular season.
And that makes sense, because outside of Tampa Bay's Cup victory in 2004 and Carolina's in 2006, the Southeast Division didn't exactly produce the most competitive clubs when the Caps were capturing five division crowns in six years.
But this season, per Hockey-Reference, Trotz has Washington sitting third in the East with regard to SRS, better than any performance the previous Ovechkin-era Capitals outfits recorded.
Is it ideal if they end up in a wild-card spot? No, but this Capitals team has grit, structure and an ability to win close games against quality opponents, and that certainly matters in the playoffs.
2. Special Teams
In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, having strong special teams units is of utmost importance. In 2013, the Bruins and Blackhawks met in the Final, each boasting a top-four postseason penalty kill. Last year, the Kings were slightly below average at ninth, but the Eastern Conference champion Rangers were third on the penalty kill.
So while the Caps are still not exactly an elite penalty-killing squad in 2014-15, the team has improved to 12th in the league after finishing 16th and 27th, respectively, during the two years prior. And a lot of that's due to personnel changes—Brooks Orpik currently occupies the team's top penalty-kill pairing alongside John Carlson, and Matt Niskanen mans the second unit with Karl Alzner.
In addition, with the power play continuing to hum at a league-best rate, the Caps have the offensive weapons to make teams pay, which will come in handy during the tight-checking postseason.
Nicklas Backstrom is arguably the league's best offensive catalyst from the half-boards, and with Ovechkin scoring at will as he has since the All-Star break, it wouldn't be a surprise if Washington's postseason hopes lie with its ability to continue that success.
1. The Blue Line
Once Washington's Achilles' heel, the team's defense corps is drastically improved from this time a year ago and is now one of the deepest in the Eastern Conference.
First-year general manager Brian MacLellan added to the team's core of Mike Green, John Carlson and Karl Alzner with the summer signings of former Penguins Niskanen and Orpik to give his club a top five to be reckoned with on the back end.
And while these two additions have been integral to Washington's success in 2014-15, just as important has been the continued growth of Carlson and Alzner, who are clearly established as two of the better young rearguards in the game.
As a result, the pressure on Mike Green to play big minutes has subsided, and the two-time Norris Trophy finalist is on track for his best season since 2009-10. That's good news for the Caps, as this team is far more dangerous with Green at his best.
Even beyond the five standouts, MacLellan did well to bring in a solid No. 6 in former U.S. Olympian Tim Gleason, who has fit in reasonably well alongside Green on the third pairing.
If we've learned anything from the last few Stanley Cup-winning rosters, having an elite top six is a necessity in building a legitimate contender, and this may be the most well-rounded defensive group in franchise history.