If the Washington Capitals keep scoring at the dizzying pace they have been this season, there’s an outside chance they’ll outscore the next best team by 50 goals. That might not seem terribly impressive when you consider the Edmonton Oilers did that and more four times in five seasons in the early 1980s, but given today’s game it’s a monumental achievement.
In fact, the Capitals have emerged as one of the most offensively potent teams since the NHL added the Florida Panthers and Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 1993, bloating the NHL to 26 teams and ushering in an era of mind-numbing defensive hockey that wasn’t loosened until after the lockout of 2004-05.
The question is, will it be enough for the Capitals to win the Stanley Cup? Well, it has been enough for them to reel off 14 straight victories, including one in what some are already calling the game of the season when they stormed (couldn’t help it) back from a 4-1 deficit to give the Capitals a 5-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins Sunday afternoon with some awful winter weather as the backdrop.
The Capitals like to tell people they’ve tightened up defensively and coach Bruce Boudreau will vociferously defend his defenders, saying his team doesn’t get enough props for how good it is defensively. Nice words, but we’re not buying it. The Capitals win games by sheer tour de force, overpowering their opponents with offense and, more often than not, hoping their defense and goaltending is just good enough to keep the other team from scoring five goals.
It flies in the face of everything we’ve believed wins hockey games and it yet may prove to be the Capitals undoing, but man, is it fun to watch. What makes it so entertaining is that the Capitals don’t kill you with a barrage of offense so much as they take the life out of you with the quick-strike power of a cobra.
Despite what you might think, the Capitals don’t shoot the puck an inordinate number of times. With an average of 32.6 shots per game, they’re fourth in the league in that category and bunched with about a dozen teams near that number.
Alex Ovechkin, meanwhile, has become far more selective in the shots he takes and it looks to be helping him. He’s on pace to lead the league again in shots, but if he keeps up at this rate, he’ll have just 386 attempts at the end of the season, which would be a career low. But he’ll also have 59 goals, which would be the second-best total of his career and three more than last season, despite taking 140 fewer shots.
And that’s the beauty of the Capitals. They don’t have to work as hard as other teams to create offense because it comes so naturally to them. That’s why they’re able to get back into games the way they did Sunday afternoon. While some teams have to work their collective tails off to generate a handful of quality scoring chances a period, the Capitals can produce one almost at will and more often than not, it finds the back of the net. I don’t know about you, but I could watch Ovechkin pick the top-hand corner with wrist shots from the point on the power play all day.
The Capitals, meanwhile, have scored five or more goals an amazing 20 times so far this season, including in each of the past three games. The next best team in that category is the Los Angeles Kings at 14. There are only four other teams in the league that are in double digits in that category and the league average for the other 29 teams is just eight.
Which brings us back to our original question. Will it be enough for the Capitals to win the Stanley Cup?
With Mike Knuble in the lineup, the Capitals are deeper offensively than they were last year and less susceptible to being shut down by the gridlock of defensive hockey that usually surfaces in the playoffs. But that wasn’t the reason why the Capitals were knocked out in the second round last season. It wasn’t as though anybody was able to shut them down, it was that their defense and goaltending came up horribly short when it was most needed in Game 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
And that’s what worries me about this team. Perhaps that’s why there is talk the Capitals are going into the trade deadline looking for a shut-down defenseman and perhaps even another goalie. There has been talk of them prying reigning Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas out of Boston, but if I’m George McPhee and I’m looking for help on defense, I look at Jan Hejda of the Columbus Blue Jackets, one of the most underrated shutdown defensemen in the league.
Exactly what the Capitals do will be anyone’s guess, but it will be interesting to see if they let the deadline pass with the team they have right now. It might not be enough to win the Stanley Cup, but it will certainly be a lot of fun watching them try.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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