Okay Washington Capitals, you sold me.
In a season when no team – until now, that is – has separated itself from the rest of the pack as a serious Stanley Cup frontrunner, the Capitals have made a believer out of me. Not going to bet my house or vast fortune on a single bet in Las Vegas at this point – there’s far too much hockey yet to be played – but I could very well envision the Capitals parading the Stanley Cup around the ice next June.
Yeah, yeah, yeah I know it is easy to single out a team that recently reeled off nine straight wins, but the Edmonton Oilers won six straight between Dec. 2 and 14 and I didn’t hear anybody anointing them as legitimate Cup threats.
As for the Capitals, I find them to be an interesting blend of size, speed, experience (through their first 36 games only three rookies played a total of 17 games), great goaltending and excellent coaching.
While Alexander Ovechkin remains the face of the organization, the fate of the Capitals is no longer tied to his individual ability to carry the team. Make no mistake about it, Ovechkin remains one of the most important players on the team, but it could be argued goaltender Braden Holtby is every bit, if not more, important to the ultimate fate of the Capitals as Ovechkin.
Once called a coach killer, Ovechkin has bought into what second-year coach Barry Trotz is selling. Ovechkin remains one of the best goal-scorers in the NHL, but he is no longer the clear-cut best. His numbers through 35 games were good – 20 goals and 33 points – though not spectacular. He ranked 15th in the NHL in scoring and was on pace for 46 goals and 76 points. Again, good, but not breathtaking.
Ovechkin plays with the same passion and enthusiasm that has enabled him to lead the NHL in scoring once and in goals five times, but not at the expense of defence. Ovechkin was plus-18 in his first 35 games and last season finished at plus-10. The year before Trotz took over as coach Ovechkin was a chilly minus-35. Only two players, Steve Ott at minus-38 and Alexander Edler at minus-39, were worse.
Trotz has gotten Ovechkin to do what none of Glen Hanlon, Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter and Adam Oates before him could not – play defence.
Ovechkin has carved out a Hall of Fame career for himself, and there have been times when he was rightfully considered the best player in the world. The battle for the crown between Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby since they both entered the NHL in 2005-06 is legendary. Ovechkin has won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player three times to Crosby’s twice, but Crosby has won the Stanley Cup and has been to the final twice. That trumps Hart Trophies every time.
Ovechkin, however, has never made it out of the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs and that is a huge blemish on his career. It is time to make amends.
Trotz has managed to get the Capitals to play a responsible two-way game. They play a disciplined style that breeds playoff success. Evgeny Kuznetsov, 23 and in his second full season with Washington, was tied for the team scoring lead with 11 goals and 33 points in 36 games. The Capitals also get decent scoring from the likes of Nicklas Backstrom, Justin Williams, T.J. Oshie and defenceman John Carlson.
Williams, in fact, was acquired as a free agent by the Capitals last summer and at age 34 it could be safely argued he’s playing the back nine of his career, but he has won three Cups (one with the Carolina Hurricanes, two with the Los Angeles Kings) and is one of those rare birds who raises the level of his performance in the postseason.
It has been said that Canada, as a country, is very thin in goal, but few will argue against Carey Price being the best goalie in hockey. The second best may very well be Holtby, who is also Canadian. The 26-year-old Lloydminster, Sask., native has blossomed this season and was not only leading the NHL with 24 wins, he was second in goals-against average at 1.86 and third in save percentage at .934. Holtby is ultracompetitive and has the rare ability to shake off goals and not let them affect his game.
It’s not as though a window will close if the Capitals don’t win the Cup this season. Their best players, including Ovechkin, are still young and Washington should be legitimate contenders for at least the next few seasons.
The Cup has been won by Western Conference teams the past four seasons and teams such as the Dallas Stars, the Kings, St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks are serious threats to win this season. But based on their play through the first half, the Capitals are every bit as good as their Western rivals.