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The Capitals’ underlying improvements have made this season’s squad that much better

Washington is atop the league and in position to chase a second straight Presidents’ Trophy, but what should really excite Capitals fans is the improvement in the possession game.

The Washington Capitals entered Sunday’s game against Philadelphia with the chance to take over top spot in both the league and the Eastern Conference, and when it was all over, Barry Trotz’s club had done so in decisive fashion with a 5-0 thumping of the Flyers.

The victory marks the second time in as many years that the Capitals find themselves atop the league in mid-January, and, coincidentally, it marks the second-consecutive campaign in which an early January run has had the Capitals looking like one of the league’s best teams. As pointed out by the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg, the Capitals’ have gone 16-2-2 over their past 20 games, which mirrors the team’s effort over the same 20-game stretch from the 2015-16 campaign that saw Washington collect the Presidents’ Trophy.

However, it would be safe to approach the Capitals current run and standing in the league with cautious optimism. Runs like this have been commonplace in Washington, with five 100-plus point seasons in the past decade and not a single Stanley Cup, let alone Eastern Conference title, to show for it. That includes the past campaign where, despite their league-best performance, the Capitals were sent packing in the second round of the post-season, dropping in six games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

Anyone thinking this season will be different, though, might be on to something.

First, let’s get this out of the way: the Capitals current nine-game win streak isn’t necessarily indicative of this team’s overall play. 

Though they’re tearing through the opposition, the fact of the matter is that this run of play that has seen Washington post four shutouts in their past six games, allow only one 5-on-5 goal in the past two weeks and run roughshod over opponents like the Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks likely won’t last. Eventually, holes are going to appear and a few back-to-back defeats will come, and that’s about as simple as pointing to the fact that the Capitals currently have an exorbitant PDO — combined shooting and save percentage — of 112.8 during their winning streak. Washington is bound to come back down to earth.

However, over the course of the season as a whole, the Capitals are looking like a team that has bought in even further to the idea of shot suppression and puck possession. The results have been evident.

This season, through 43 games, the Capitals boast the league’s fourth-best possession rate at 52.1 percent and a large part of that has been the dip in shot attempts against per 60 minutes. Though it may not seem like all that much, Trotz’s team has seen two fewer attempts against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 compared to last season, and that can be enough to make a difference. And while puck possession wasn’t a glaring fault of the Capitals during the 2015-16 season, it was one area that certainly needed improvement.

At just 51 percent puck possession during their run up to the Presidents’ Trophy, the Capitals were the definition of a middle-of-the-road team. They ranked 14th in the league, behind the likes of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Carolina Hurricanes. And while a strong Corsi For percentage clearly isn’t the be-all, end-all — the Capitals were the league’s best regular season squad while the Maple Leafs were decidedly not — the inability to drive the flow of the game came to roost in the post-season.

In four of the six games of the second round series against the Penguins, the Capitals lost the possession battle, and the only game in which Washington escaped with a landslide in driving the play came in an outing which Pittsburgh had already gotten themselves out to a 3-0 lead. After their six-game defeat of the Capitals, it didn’t come as much of a surprise that a Penguins team that was exceptional at driving play during the regular season, finishing second in the league behind only the Los Angeles Kings, used their ability to possess the puck paired with some incredible scoring ability to power their way to the Stanley Cup.

That’s almost exactly the way the Capitals have been playing this season, too, using their ability to possess the puck paired with sharpshooting and creative offensive talent to blow the opposition away. In fact, at 5-on-5, there’s only one team as good as the Capitals at producing goals at 5-on-5, and it’s the Penguins. Both teams have scored 2.78 goals per 60 minutes at five-a-side, and it seems like all of Washington’s big-name talent is starting to heat up at just the right time.

While there’s no Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel scoring trio in Washington, the trio of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov is about as good an answer as there could be. Backstrom has been lights out over the past month, Ovechkin is again pacing the team and near the top of the league in goal scoring and after a slow start, Kuznetsov has rattled off two goals and 12 points in his past 14 games. When you match that kind of scoring prowess with the ability to generate shot attempts and scoring chances, it can make for a formidable foe. Of course, none of this is to mention the exceptional goaltending of Braden Holtby, who continues to prove that he’s one of the games best netminders.

Post-season hockey can be an entirely different animal and a few ill-timed goals against can be the difference between a deep run and an early exit, but controlling the play and giving fewer opportunities for those mistakes to be made can be all it takes to get over the hump. And if nothing else, the improvement in that area may be enough to turn the Capitals’ cautious optimism into something more.

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