The Capitals have a five-point lead on the second-place Chicago Blackhawks for the top spot in the NHL standings, and they have played six fewer games. Their plus-58 goal differential is nearly as high as the next two teams (Chicago is plus-33, and Dallas is plus-32) combined. They have nearly four times as many regulation wins as they do regulation losses.
How has Washington been so dominant? We could probably fill a book with the long answer, so consider this the Coles Notes edition.
Strong special teams
Washington leads the NHL with a 23.7 percent efficiency rating on the man advantage. Alex Ovechkin leads the league with 14 power-play goals, while Nicklas Backstrom is fifth in the NHL with 22 points on the man advantage, but it would be a mistake to see the Caps’ success here solely through the lens of that duo.
Seven different Capitals players are inside the top 100 when it comes to power-play points in the NHL. Jason Chimera, who is eighth on the team with nine points, is among the league’s most efficient scorers. The second-unit forward ranks third in points per 60 minutes in the five-on-four. Washington has a great top quintet and a second unit that scores at a first-unit rate.
The Capitals are also one of the NHL’s best penalty-killing teams, ranking fifth in the league with an 84.0 percent kill rate when down a man. Some of that is the result of limiting shots against (Washington sits 15th in shot prevention in the five-on-four), but most of it comes from the strong total save percentage (.894, seventh in the NHL) in those situations.
The penalty kill leans heavily on goalie Braden Holtby, but he’s a difference-maker at five-on-five, too. Despite some weaker performances over the last couple of weeks, Holtby ranks fifth among starting goalies with 40-plus starts and a .926 save percentage.
This isn’t a new development in Washington. Holtby has been playing NHL games since 2010-11, and his lowest save percentage over a full season was a respectable .915. Last year, he led the league with 72 starts and managed a .923 save percentage.
If we rank the NHL’s 360 regular forwards (12 per team) by even-strength points per 60 minutes, we get an idea of how good the Caps’ top six have been this year.
Evgeny Kuznetsov has a narrow grip on the NHL lead in that category, edging out Chicago’s Patrick Kane. Washington has five other players inside the top 60, which is a staggering figure when we remember that the league has 90 first-line forwards. This year at even strength, both the Caps’ first and second lines have scored at a first-line clip.
Washington also has three more players inside the top 180, meaning that the third line is scoring at what would be considered a second-line rate.
John Carlson has probably missed too many games to be a legitimate threat for the Norris Trophy, but the versatile defenceman has a decent case between his strong defensive play and 30 points in 43 games.
Add in the offensively gifted Matt Niskanen and the defensively gifted Karl Alzner, and Washington has formed two quality pairings despite a long-term injury to Brooks Orpik, who is expected to be back before the playoffs.
Nate Schmidt has been pushed into a top-four role thanks to the Orpik injury and has done well, leading the team in Fenwick percentage (meaning the scoring chances heavily favour the Capitals when he’s on the ice). Meanwhile, No. 6 defenceman Dmitry Orlov has 21 points, which places him among the league’s 50 highest-scoring defencemen and ties him with the departed Mike Green.
Washington does everything well.
Positionally, the Capitals outperform across the board. They have a lethal group of forwards and tremendous strength through three lines. They can win with their best players or with depth and, with some small insurance additions up front, could have a strong fourth line, too.
On the back end, the defence is strong and will be stronger with either health or a more impressive veteran than Taylor Chorney in the No. 7 role. Braden Holtby is an exceptional goalie, and Philipp Grubauer is an impressive understudy.
At five-on-five, Washington combines strong puck possession and shot attempts (50.2 percent Corsi rating) with the kind of forwards and goaltending that we would expect to give them an edge in the percentages. On special teams, they have the league’s best power play and a strong penalty kill.
It’s no wonder this team is in first place in the NHL standings.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.
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