Coming into the season, we knew the Washington Capitals wouldn’t be judged on how they performed in the first 82 games; rather how successful they were come springtime. That sentiment still remains true despite the style changes that Bruce Boudreau and company have enforced. Will it be enough to get the Caps over the hump?
The Capitals have demons to exorcise once the ‘second season’ rolls around. In three years under the current regime, the team has lost three of four playoff series, all going to a seventh game. Last year’s club was one of the best in NHL history – in the regular season. But they were taken to school in the first round by the eighth-seeded Canadiens on how to win in the playoffs. Did they learn all the lessons they needed to last April?
In early December, Boudreau made the decision to change the way the Caps played – less run and gun, more focus on defense. The growing pains, which included a 6-8-5 from Dec. 2 through Jan. 14 and an eight-game losing streak, were tough. However, the results through this point in the season have been rewarding.
Led by Captain Alex Ovechkin, the Caps went on a nine-game winning streak earlier this month. Instead of simply outscoring teams, they outworked the opposition. Thanks to that nice run, the Caps are just two points back of Philadelphia for the conference lead. Before the streak, they were stuck in fifth in the East.
For a second, let’s ignore the fact that the team is scoring less, Ovechkin is on pace for his lowest goal total in his career, and Mike Green isn’t competing for the Norris while acting as a fourth forward.
Thanks to a three-headed monster in net, the goaltending is better than last year. They currently rank third in the league in goals-against average (2.36), compared to last year’s 16th-ranked goaltending (2.77). Part of it is the new style of play; but some can be accredited to Michal Neuvirth, who has looked solid when healthy.
The penalty kill is also improved. The unit is fourth in the league; last year they were 25th. To me, a good penalty kill is more important in the playoffs than a good power play. Boudreau’s gang is also better in one-goal games and has surrendered the least amount of third period goals. Blocked shots are up and so is their faceoff percentage. This is now a team that understands how to win close, low-scoring games.
All of these statistics point to their marked improvement on the defensive side of the puck. A slight change in personnel has helped, too.
Gone are the likes of Tomas Fleischmann and Shaone Morrisonn; in are Marcus Johansson and Scott Hannan. Johansson has been a nice two-way pivot for the Caps, while Hannan’s stay-at-home niche has fit into Washington’s new style of play. The unheralded pairing of John Carlson and Karl Alzner hasn’t hurt, either.
If you put all of this together, does it equate to a lengthy postseason run? You would think so, but there are no guarantees. This year’s Eastern Conference is shallow, but so was last year’s.
Game-to-game inconsistency and disappointment has littered past postseasons for Ovechkin’s Caps. Despite this late-season success, they will be under a close microscope to flip the script come mid-April and beyond.
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.