Back on November 15, prior to the St. Louis Blues defeating the Washington Capitals, Blues Coach Ken Hitchcock, pointed out the differences he was seeing in the Barry Trotz coached Caps from past squads. Specifically, he said the following (courtesy of Alex Prewitt of The Washington Post):
“With the skill level he has to work with, it’s going to be a very difficult team to have to compete against. Hopefully we got them in the middle of their transition phase, but you can just see where it’s going to be in a month if the buy-in continues. It’s a lot of talented people that are beginning to understand structure and discipline and it’s going to be hard to play against.”
Fast forward to December 27, 2014, just over a month later, and after a 3-0 beat down of the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Consol Energy center the Caps are in the midst of an 8-1-2 run and have indeed become a club that is hard to play against.
Ever since Bruce Boudreau was fired, the Pens have pretty much owned the Capitals. They had won eight straight against Washington heading into Saturday’s tilt and were sitting atop the entire Eastern Conference at 22-7-5. The Caps had to travel the day of the game and go into a hostile arena, but they never flinched and dominated the Penguins in nearly all facets of the game.
You get two points for every game you win, but this victory on Saturday meant more than that. It was a validation of the hard work this club is putting in learning the Trotz system, and more importantly, it is re-enforcement that they are becoming a team and changing their culture, and are no longer just a bunch of guys who show up for games and try to win them.
This team is as committed as I’ve ever seen it. They are hard on the puck at both ends and they are doing the things that win hockey games, like driving the net, something they had struggled with for several years. On the game’s final tally, Eric Fehr’s second of the night, all three Capitals forwards were in front of the net. When was the last time you can remember the Caps doing something like that?
It was a joy to watch and Sidney Crosby, who was -3 on the night as a result of being shut down by John Carlson and Brooks Orpik, was so frustrated that he threw his stick.
Yes, the Penguins know it now, this is a different Capitals team. They no longer float in their own zone waiting for breakaways, instead they hound the puck carrier up and down the ice. They hit, they block shots, and they protect their goalie, Braden Holtby (31 saves), who was outstanding once again.
Washington won despite their captain, Alex Ovechkin, having 0 points. But don’t mistake the point total for a lack of production. The Gr8 was a beast in this game with 18 shots attempts, including 10 on goal. Ovi also had 5 hits in 23:34 of ice time. He and Nicklas Backstrom were dominant despite not getting any offensive points. But if they keep playing like that, the points will certainly come. The Capitals top duo is wearing out opponents and that is making it easier for the other lines to contribute.
Fehr notched two goals by going to the net on a very strong line with Joel Ward and Brooks Laich while Marcus Johansson had a huge marker on a two on one break to make it 2-0 in the third period. MJ90 wisely shot the puck on that odd man rush and he beat Marc Andre-Fleury to really put the Pens behind the eight ball.
Overall, the Caps carried the play in this one out shot attempting the Penguins, 63-53, and the Caps also survived a five on three Pens power play late in regulation. Washington played well and when they made any type of mistake, their goalie came through with a clutch save.
Simply put, this is a different Capitals team, and like Hitchcock stated, if the buy-in continues, look out.
That buy-in must continue. The addition of Orpik, who was +3 in 24:04 of ice time, has changed the dimension for the Caps on the back end. Teams have a lot more trouble getting to the front of the Washington cage for easy goals. Bringing in Matt Niskanen has also allowed Carlson and Mike Green to be fresher and play more to their strengths. Those two former Penguins have been difference makers this season, whether you like their contracts or not.
The Caps are now 18-11-6 but are still in 4th place in the Metropolitan Division. The transformation is still occurring and Trotz also has the tough task of trying to fit in three younger players in the lineup in Tom Wilson, Andre Burakovsky, and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Those three all have promising futures because of their skill sets, but they are still green when it comes to the NHL. It’s a tough balancing act, but so far the team is finding ways to win while developing the young guys.
So now it’s on to Long Island for Monday’s tilt against the Islanders, a team they went 1-0-1 against in late November. The Caps are just five points in back of New York, who are now without goalie Jaroslav Halak. It’s another big game for Washington and they have a chance to make things very uncomfortable for their opponents once again.
The way Washington is playing and dominating their division opponents, they are quickly becoming the team in the Metro that noone wants to play.