It’s suddenly a lot less fun to be a Capitals fan. After a stellar stretch of hockey in December and January, Washington has just one win in its last seven games. The Capitals are making mistakes they seemed to have eradicated from their play earlier this season. They’re falling behind too often in the first period. They’re pretty much conceding a loss when they dress their backup goaltender.
But this is no time to stop believing in Wasington. Humbled or not, these Caps are a deeper, better coached, more committed group than they have been in years. And when they get their game back in order, they’ll be a team that no one wants to meet in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Here are five reasons to believe that this team could be the one that goes all the way.
1. The development of Braden Holtby.
The numbers don’t tell the whole story when you’re talking about what Holtby has brought to the Capitals this season. If you just look at the raw stats, he was a touch more effective last season, posting a .930 even-strength save percentage compared to .928 this time around. But ask anyone who watches Washington and they’ll tell you that he’s a different player now. More controlled. More relaxed. More effective.
“When I first met him and we started, he was extremely intense and focused,” Caps goalie coach Mitch Korn told The Washington Post. “Now I can actually have a conversation with him. I see him smile.”
That ease has altered Holtby's persona, making him a more confident stopper. He’s not just making flashy saves, though. He’s also making more saves when it matters most. “He’s been exceptional for us,” said coach Barry Trotz. “He’s given us everything we could ask for.”
That's not hyperbole. Holtby has played in 43 of Washington’s first 50 games and already has set a franchise record for most consecutive appearances. He’s proved that he can handle a lot shots or not many at all. And he’s shown that he can excel in games that swing to both extremes, including Saturday's 1–0 OT loss to the Canadiens, which saw him sleep through the first two periods and then stand tall while Montreal bombarded him in the third.
“He won’t be recognized as one of the best until he gets that team through a couple of [playoff] rounds,” a scout told SI.com. “But you watch his game, watch how much he’s progressed, and he’s right there. They can win with him.”
2. Their coach
Hiring Barry Trotz changed everything. Everything. The longtime Predators bench boss won over a group of players who were widely regarded as resistant to defensive play (or, in some cases, lazy) and got them to buy into his system.
It took some time (the first few weeks of the season weren’t always pretty) and some savvy adjustments to take advantage of the talent on hand, but Trotz has the Capitals’ trust. And he has them winning, including one 19-game stretch that saw them lose just once in regulation.
Naturally, it starts with defense.
“Without the puck, we’ve changed. He demands more. That’s been a big improvement. Defending so we can get the puck back faster,” Matt Niskanen told Sportsnet. “Every coach is a little bit different, their style, the language they use. Parts of what [Trotz] does is a bit like Dan Bylsma, and there’s parts of his philosophy that’s a bit like Dave Tippett. Those are two drastically different approaches in the game, so hopefully it’s the best of both worlds.”
So far, it’s working. Washington ranks in the top 10 in goals-for (2.92, eighth) and goals-against (2.50, eighth). There’s still some fine-tuning to do—the penalty kill in particular needs to be sharper—but there’s no denying what Trotz has accomplished. The Caps aren’t simply pulling in the same direction. They're pulling in the right one.
3. They're strong at even strength.
Sure, Washington boasts a scary-good power play. At 24.1% on the season, it’s third-best in the league. But being great with the extra man hasn’t meant much to this team in the past. It led the league with a 26.8% success rate in 2012–13 and was bounced out of the first round by the Rangers. And last year, when the Caps had a league-leading 23.4% success rate? They couldn’t even make the playoff cut.
To be successful in 2014–15, Washington needed to play better at five-on-five. So far, so good. A team that was a miserable .90 for/against last season (23rd in the league) is a solid 1.12 this year, tied for the 10thbest mark. The Capitals are allowing 1.79 goals-per game at even strength this season, down from 1.89, but the big shift is in how they are creating offense. Washington generated just 1.69 goals per game at five-on-five in ’13–14. This year? An even 2.00.
“We know we can’t just rely on the [the power play],” Eric Fehr said. “We want to be better in all facets of the game. We knew we had to be better at even strength. It’s something we’ve worked on.”
4. The resurrection of Mike Green.
It may be his last hurrah with the Caps—unless the pending UFA is willing to take a sizable pay cut—but he’s making it a season to remember. Green has been arguably the team’s best defenseman this year, a lynchpin on the power play as always, but also surprisingly effective at five-on-five as well. He ranks 13th in the league with 19 even-strength points, but what’s more impressive is that he is third in points per 60 minutes, with 1.6, trailing only Victor Hedman and teammate John Carlson.
Credit Green’s rebirth to smarter, more focused usage by Trotz. Green is playing nearly four minutes less per game than he did last season, down to just 19:03, but he’s facing lesser matchups and getting a greater percentage of his starts in the offensive zone. In other words, Washington has been taking advantage of the blue-line depth they added over the summer (Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik) and tailored Green’s ice time to extract the most from his particular skills.
“It’s not that he was a bad player, per se,” a scout told SI.com. “It’s that he was asked [by previous coaches] to do things he shouldn’t have been doing. Asking him to be a shutdown guy was asking for trouble. [The current coaches] have the luxury of Niskanen and Orpik, so they’re playing to his strengths, putting him in a position to succeed. He’s a guy who can kick-start the offense, who can goose a lead. Good to see him doing well again.”
5. Their MVP.
As someone who’s spent the better part of the last three seasons dwelling on the gaping holes in Alex Ovechkin’s game, I have to tip my cap to the efforts he’s made to become a more rounded player this season. He’s never going to be Patrice Bergeron, and he's still not yet everything he could be, but Ovechkin took a huge step in his maturation by buying into Trotz’s system and helping sell it to the rest of the team.
“He’s bought in from day one,” Trotz said. “He’s a guy that cares and all he wants to do is win. He gets a lot of criticism for stuff that’s not even in his area sometimes and he gets criticized for it. He’s been a real pleasure to work with and if we’re gonna win, we’re gonna need an Alex Ovechkin, we’re gonna need a team concept and we’re gonna need everybody pulling on the ropes the same way and Alex is right in there doing that.”
Trotz also offered this telling remark. “I think he realizes he’s mortal and he wants to do something greater with the team. He’s got all the individual awards that you can win in this league, he just wants to win the big one and that’s a team award."
Maybe Ovechkin finally gets it. After all those Olympic failures with Russia and flameouts with the Caps, he understands that great players are measured by championships, not Rocket Richard Trophies.
And the funny thing is, they aren’t mutually exclusive. As he’s improved his commitment to defense, Ovechkin has become more effectively involved in the offense. With 15 goals in his last 15 games, he is just the fifth player in NHL history to score at least 30 goals in each of his first 10 seasons. But he is also proving to be a more valuable player. Maybe even a Most Valuable Player.
Don’t rule him out.