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Blackhawks vs Capitals: Winter Classic 2015 Win Shows Washington Is Title Threat

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistJanuary 1, 2015

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 01: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals congratulates Troy Brouwer #20 of the Washington Capitals after his game winning third period goal during the 2015 NHL Winter Classic against the Chicago Blackhawks at Nationals Park on January 1, 2015 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Washington Capitals have been perpetually disappointing during the Alex Ovechkin era, losing many playoff series to inferior teams and not being able to capitalize on all the talent they've had.

If there is going to be a turning point for the franchise, look no further than the 2015 Winter Classic against Chicago.

In what has turned into one of the marquee sporting events on a crowded New Year's Day calendar, the Winter Classic afforded the Capitals a chance to showcase where they are headed with a thrilling 3-2 victory against the second-best team in the Western Conference.

The game appeared destined for overtime before Troy Brouwer scored a power-play goal with 13 seconds left in regulation to give the Capitals a win on Thursday.

It also moved them to 19-11-7 and into third place in the Metropolitan Division.

Ovechkin, who got in on the scoring early with a first-period goal that gave Washington a 2-0 lead, seems to have matured in front of our eyes. The Capitals star has been criticized throughout his career for not being the leader this team needs, as Allan Muir of Sports Illustrated wrote in April 2014:

We all have a vision of what a captain should be. For most of us, that guy probably looks a lot like Mark Messier in his prime: a larger-than-life figure who boldly leads the charge, demands accountability from his teammates, and backs up his message with total commitment and the occasional legacy-building goal.

...

But there is one prerequisite for the job: a captain has to be able to lead.

And that tool is missing from Ovechkin's box.

The Washington captain has taken a new approach this season and gives all the credit to first-year head coach Barry Trotz, via Erik Brady of USA Today:

Just the mentality, the system, how he prepares for the games (is different). I'll say every coach is different. Every coach is a good coach and a bad coach. If you play well, you think everything is fine. But if you didn't play well, you start blaming someone, and the first guy you are going to blame is going to be the coach, because you are never going to blame yourself. Sometimes we have to realize maybe it's your mistake.

Throughout this marriage between Ovechkin and Washington, the Capitals have experienced some of the highest highs in the regular season. They won five division titles in a six-year span from 2007-13, but disappointment reared its ugly head against playoff competition. They didn't advance beyond the second round during that stretch.

Last year was rock bottom for Ovechkin and the Capitals. He led the league with 51 goals but had the third-worst plus/minus rating at minus-35, and the team missed the playoffs despite finishing with 90 points. 

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

The Winter Classic looked like another instance where the Capitals were going to disappoint after an electric start. They had a two-goal lead in the first 12 minutes before letting the Blackhawks back in the game with goals late in the first period and early in the second.

Chicago's first goal also showcased one major problem for the Capitals: penalty-killing. They rank 25th in this department with a 78.0 percent success rate. Patrick Sharp scored with a one-man advantage on Thursday.

There's no denying that this Washington bunch is still flawed, but there's been a different energy following the team so far this season.

The Capitals are able to score with anyone, are getting solid goaltending from Braden Holtby and have a coach capable of making all the pieces jell. 

Ovechkin is the engine that makes the ship go, but he doesn't have to carry the entire burden alone anymore. He's getting great support from Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson.

Playing in the Eastern Conference doesn't make for an easy road to the Stanley Cup, as the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning, Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings all look formidable.

The Capitals are slowly moving into that mix and got their marquee win of the year on the biggest stage NHL has to offer in the regular season.

Winning championships is a process. The Capitals have gone a roundabout way toward getting there but look better now than when they were winning multiple division titles.

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