ARLINGTON, Va. – Let’s face it: 7-0 is pretty good. Only nine other teams in NHL history have started a season that way.
But if Tuesday’s longer-than-usual practice capped by perspiration-inducing sprints is any indication, the Washington Capitals see it only as a start.
“A lot of teams would really be excited about winning six games in a row,” said forward Brooks Laich. “And, for us, we went to Philly and we won and we came home, there was no popping champagne or over-joyous celebrating, anything like that. It’s nice to see that winning has started to become a habit, and the bar is getting so high that you expect to get that every time.”
Three weeks into the season, the four-time defending Southeast Division champions are at the top of the NHL in many ways. They’re the only unbeaten team remaining, three games shy of the all-time record for a perfect start. They lead the league in goals per game (4.14) and power-play percentage (29.6). They’re sixth in goals against (2.00) and have committed the third fewest penalties (27).
For perspective’s sake, one might also point out that the Capitals needed overtime or a shootout for their first three wins, or that they’ve only played two road games, or that they’ve faced a disproportionate amount of No. 2 goalies because of the way their opponents’ schedules have worked out.
But it’s hard to be picky about a 7-1 win over Detroit. Or a 5-2 win over Philadelphia. Or the fact that there’s not a straightaway No. 1 answer for the Capitals’ success.
In the past, one might say that Alex Ovechkin was hot. Or the goalie was standing on his head. Or the power play was cooking. But Ovechkin’s had only one big game—two goals vs. the Flyers. Goaltender Tomas Vokoun has been outstanding over the last week, but he previously had a five-goal stinker vs. Tampa Bay when the offence bailed him out. The unglamorous third and fourth lines have been solid throughout.
“I don’t think we’re a one-trick pony,” Laich said. “If you do a good job on the top two lines, the bottom two lines can score. One night our penalty kill might win us a hockey game, one night power play might. One night Vokoun or (Michal Neuvirth) is absolutely going to steal a hockey game. When you have that many strengths usually you’ll get a really good performance from something that’ll carry you through the hockey game.
“The difference with this team, everybody has their ‘A’ game—which is so high and as good as you can possibly play—but usually you play at your ‘B’ Game, and I think our ‘B’ game is getting closer to our ‘A’ game. That gap is being narrowed where you see a better effort every night.”
After practice, the Capitals headed to the airport for their first multigame road trip of the season—a possible trap game Thursday at Edmonton before a much-anticipated showdown Saturday at Vancouver. Before leaving, coach Bruce Boudreau came up with that No. 1 reason for the unbeaten run.
“There is an obvious answer: The team’s playing well,” Boudreau said. “Nobody’s playing better than anybody else, so it’s when you have everybody pulling in the right direction, usually good things happen. Now who knows? Thursday nobody might pull in the right direction. We’re getting lucky bounces at the right times, and Thursday we might not get any of the bounces. Things are going our way right now, but as we all know in sports, they can change in a heartbeat.”
It’s never easy when an East Coast team travels west, but this Capitals team is better suited for Western Conference hockey following the off-season additions of Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern and Roman Hamrlik.
“We’ve gotten a lot older and not quite as flashy,” forward Mike Knuble said. “A little less flash, a little more substance, a little more up-and-down and a little more ugly about it.”
The changes were made in the hopes that the Capitals will finally break through in the playoffs—and be remembered more for tough-it-out wins in May and June rather than highlight wins in October.
“We got a whole lot grittier,” forward Jason Chimera said. “I think we’re doing a good job of not playing so fancy.”