Washington Capitals Score Hat Trick as Three-Time Division Champs

K. D. James@KDamanJCorrespondent IMarch 12, 2010

WASHINGTON DC, DC - MARCH 08:  Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals skates against the Dallas Stars on March 8, 2010 at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC. The Stars defeated the Caps 4-3 after a shootout.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

One expression used over time is that three's a charm.

That is definitely the case for the Washington Capitals, currently one of the NHL's hottest teams, as they clinched their third consecutive Southeast Division championship in early March.

They earned the distinction after division rival Atlanta lost to Columbus, 2-1, Thursday evening.

The Thrashers, the second best team in the division, trail the Capitals in points by an overwhelming margin of 33. In fact, Washington boasts a 15-2 record this season over their division rivals.

Washington, which defeated the Carolina Hurricanes in overtime, 4-3, on Wednesday night at Verizon Center, has won three of its past four games since the Olympic break in February.

Before the break, the Capitals went on a season-high 14-game win streak, tied for the third longest in NHL history.

The Boston Bruins set that same streak during the 1929-1930 season. The New York Islanders had a 15-game win streak in 1982; the Pittsburgh Penguins, 17 straight wins back in 1993.

That streak was snapped against Montreal, leading to a three-game losing streak before five of the Capitals (Alex Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom, Tomas Fleischmann, Alexander Semin, and Semyon Varlamov) headed off to Vancouver to play for their respective countries.

With a record of 45 wins, 13 losses, and 9 overtime losses, totaling 99 points for the year, the Capitals remain at the top of the standings in both the Eastern and Western Conferences in the NHL, leading the San Jose Sharks by four points as of Thursday.

Who are Washington's competitors in the chase for the Eastern Conference crown, you might ask? Pittsburgh has 85 points, with both Buffalo and New Jersey, in third and fourth place, respectively, at 81 points apiece.

In addition, Washington boasts the best home record (26-3-4) and second-best road record (19-10-5 vs. the Sharks' record of 21-8-2) in the league, not to mention two of the top five scorers in Ovechkin and Backstrom.

Ovechkin leads the league with 94 points (44 goals, 50 assists) and Backstrom is No. 4 with 80 points (26, 54), respectively.

Mike Green, the Caps' top defenseman, leads all defensemen with 66 points (17 goals, 49 points), good enough for 18th place in the league. 

The team boasts the league's best power-play percentage, 25.6 percent (67 of 262 power-play opportunities) and scores the most goals per game—an average of 3.88 goals (an astounding 264 in 67 games). Washington has the best goal differential, too, +75 (264 goals for, 189 goals against).

The team's main problems lie on goal and penalty-killing. At goalie, the Capitals have relied on three men—José Theodore, Semyon Varlamov, and Michal Neuvirth.

Varlamov has been injured for half of the season (knee problems).

Theodore has been great at times—shaky in others—this year, having a lot better grip on his role than he had last season. The unfortunate death of his infant son last summer has probably propelled him to play a more motivated, more inspired way recently.

Theodore has played in the most games though, which seems to indicate that he will be the starting goaltender for the Caps in the playoffs. He has a .910 save percentage (ranked in the 20s among starting goalies) and has allowed 2.79 goals per game, one of the league's poorest averages.

It might take a while for Varlamov to regain the excitement, aura and hype from last year's playoff series against New York and Pittsburgh. Varlamov will be headed into April as Theodore's backup until further notice. 

Neuvirth remains untested, still playing most of the games this season in the American Hockey League, called up to sub for Theodore and Varlamov when needed. He seems to have the potential to one day be a starter, but he looks unlikely to be ready for postseason action in 2010.

Washington is among the league's worst in penalty-killing, ranked 25th out of 30 teams, allowing 57 power-play goals on 265 times short-handed, a 78.5 percentage. (In comparison, Boston has an 86.3 percent penalty-kill rate, the best.)

It is hopeful that the players acquired in the midseason trade—Eric Belanger, Scott Walker, and Joe Corvo—will shore up that glaring deficiency for the team, as well as help out on defense, another weakness for the Caps. 

The team in Washington won the division in 2008 in dramatic fashion, winning on the last day of the regular season against the Florida Panthers to clinch a No. 3 seed in the NHL playoffs (and bump out Carolina from contender to pretender in the process).

They lost in the first round at home to the Philadelphia Flyers.

That year the Capitals were pitiful, until a coaching change (Glen Hanlon for Bruce Boudreau) by the front office on Thanksgiving Day 2007 resulted in the team's consistently continuous trend of fast-paced, offense-oriented play.

The Caps won the division again in 2009 (in a more casual way), clinching the division in March, not in April.

They beat the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs, advancing in Game Seven at home. Sequentially, they played Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference semifinals and lost the series on another Game Seven matchup at home.

Washington's winning ways in the regular season have led to a more pedestrian run into the playoffs for three years straight, this time with loftier goals of hoisting Lord Stanley's Cup in June.

The team now resembles a playoff-ready roster, replete with stars, young guns and savvy veterans, even a few extra added as early as last week.

It will take some time and patience to see how far this team will go in the springtime. But Boudreau will have his hands full in being asked to tinker the lineup without so much as try to disrupt the team's solid chemistry.

Despite a two-time reigning MVP (Ovechkin) and a handful of equally talented teammates, Boudreau must come up with the precise formula to win the title this year (and several times over in the future).

Unfortunately, exiting the playoffs early with just a (prospective) Presidents' Cup, division title, and any other accolade awarded to them this season is not an option; it will be regarded as a failure to owner Ted Leonsis and general manager George McPhee nonetheless.

With 15 games left in the regular season, the Caps need to focus on what lies ahead— instead of what they already have in hand—in order to satisfy everyone in the end.


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