Through 65 games the Washington Capitals have the best record in the National Hockey League at 44-14-7 (95 points).
Virtually every form of online power rankings, whether it’s ESPN.COM, NHL.COM, or TSN.CA, has the Caps in the top spot in the league.
Reading the national press clippings after the acquisition of defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk, it’s pretty clear that most hockey experts believe the Capitals have the best team in the league and they have their greatest chance to finally win a Stanley Cup.
In terms of the best team in the league, well there is a certain club in the state of Pennsylvania that is still the reigning Stanley Cup Champions, so until the Capitals or someone else beats them, the Penguins continue to lay claim to the best team in the league title, in my book.
However, the experts are right that this is the Caps best chance ever to win a championship. I’ve been watching this franchise since 1974-75 and have seen some very good hockey teams that have put themselves in the Cup conversation, such as the 1985-86, 1991-92, 2008-09, 2009-10, and 2015-16 squads. They were all very good, yet they failed to bring home Lord Stanley.
Not one of those rosters was as talented and as deep as this current team. General Manager Brian MacLellan has done an absolutely amazing job of building a serious Cup contender from where he started from just three years ago. There are no holes after the Shattenkirk, Lars Eller, and Brett Connolly acquisitions that have occurred since last May’s loss to the Penguins. Coach Barry Trotz has changed the culture in the organization, for the better, and in his three seasons as Caps bench boss, the team has the best regular season record in the NHL.
Simply put, they have the talent and the coaching to put themselves in position to get the job done.
But all of that will amount to no more than a hill of beans in the spring if they don’t immediately address a big issue that has seriously crept back into their game, once again: SLOW STARTS!
From December 31st to February 11th, the Capitals went on a tear, jumping on their opponents early and often and in the process they scored five or more goals at the Verizon Center in 11 straight games, which tied an NHL record with the 1970-71 Boston Bruins. It was almost routine to see the Caps come out and score a goal in the first 10 minutes and put their opponents on their heels quickly. The way they played during that stretch reminded me of how Pittsburgh played from January 1st, 2016 until Sidney Crosby ultimately lifted his second Stanley Cup last June. They came out fast and they made their opponents feel uncomfortable instantly. Coach Trotz was then able to roll all four lines and all three defensive pairs to wear out the opposition; much like Mike Sullivan did last season. There was no “chasing the game” from Washington. They were playing the right way.
Since the bye week, however, Washington is a pedestrian 5-3-1 (11 points), but in only two of those games (at Nashville and vs. Edmonton) did they have a first 20 minutes that compared to what we saw before everyone took off for the beaches or the mountains for five days on February 12th. Basically, the Capitals have not been very close to the club we saw in the first 56 games. This post bye week team has been too lackadaisical in their efforts and their performances are eerily reminiscent of what we saw in the last couple of months of the 2015-16 regular season. That’s very concerning to me, we all know how last season ended, and I’d like to think the Caps players feel the same way.
On Monday night against the speedy Dallas Stars, the slow starts reached a boiling point. The Stars scored just 1:48 into the contest and would build a three goal lead by the six minute mark of period two. Sure the referees missed blatant goaltender interference on the first tally, but when you come out like you’ve been listening to “I Write the Songs” by Barry Manilow for hours before the game and let a team that has very slim playoff hopes skate all over you, you are putting yourselves at the mercy of the zebras. If the Caps come out strong, the goalie interference never happens and Coach Trotz doesn’t have to use his challenge before the contest is two minutes old. Washington has no one to blame but themselves for the sleep walking they did early on to end up so far behind the eight ball and as a result, they were the ones “chasing the game.”
After last season’s devastating loss to the Penguins, the club talked about having better starts to games and also developing a killer instinct. This was a very valid point, especially given that in games 2, 3, and 6 of the Pittsburgh series the Capitals got off to horrendous starts and found themselves expending massive energy to rally before losing each of those contests, and ultimately the series. The slow starts and lack of killer instinct also goes back to the Rangers series in the spring of May 2015 (see Game 6 and losing a 3-1 series lead).
Those teams had some holes, no doubt, and MacLellan has filled them, but the Capitals have reverted in the last three weeks with a subpar effort to the start of games. After the loss to Dallas, Coach Trotz said the fix to the problem has to come from “the room.”
To paraphrase Colonel Jessup from A Few Good Men, “You’re doggone right it does!”
This starts with the team’s leadership, specifically Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Brooks Orpik. All three of those players were guilty of terrible starts on Monday night and that’s just not acceptable. In fact, since the bye week, each game I find myself wondering, outside of T.J. Oshie, who in the top six is going to show up consistently (“Osh Babe” and the bottom six pretty much bring the effort every game).
Ovechkin told the media recently that it’s time to stop talking about winning the Cup and do something about it this spring. Well, this is when #8 needs to start stepping up and getting this team ready to play and rolling for the playoffs. He also needs to improve on his defensive zone play, because it’s slipped, once again. In hockey, offense comes from good defense, and he can certainly perform much better in his own zone than we’ve seen lately. His back checking has greatly improved over the last three seasons, but once he’s pinned in the defensive area, he’s struggled, especially this year. With his skill set, that can easily be changed with more effort, focus, and attention to detail. In fact, every player on this team should be looking at where they can get better, if they want to win the Cup.
There are 17 games left and just over a month before the hardest round of the playoffs to win, the first one, will commence. There is no finding your game once the post season starts. You need to be clicking and heading into that first week with momentum. Again, see Pittsburgh last season.
The Capitals, right now, don’t have any momentum, they’ve lost it on the beach, skiing, and doing other off-ice activities since February 11th. During their recent three game homestand, they scored a total of five goals. Oshie told me after the loss to Dallas that some nights the puck just doesn’t bounce your way and he also pointed out that it seemed like for a stretch this season, before the bye week, everything was going in. He’s correct that luck is a factor, but in sports, you mostly make your own fortune. The Capitals were scoring so many goals in January and early February because they were working hard to get pucks and bodies to the net via the quality scoring areas. They haven’t been working hard enough or very efficiently since the bye week to regain their offensive prowess. Oshie is the exception to that, all you have to do is look at his goal on Monday night, and I’ll give Ovechkin credit there for creating chaos in front of Caps killer Kari Lehtonen. Backstrom’s goal came from right in front, too, so the team can learn from the film of the Stars tilt to see what they need to do to start lighting the lamp again. To me it all starts with effort and attention to detail, the problem was it came too late on Monday night, nearly 30 minutes into the game.
When the Caps get an early lead, they are so deadly because of their depth. Oshie reiterated on Monday night that “depth” is the strength of this team. When you have 20 guys all pulling on the rope and four lines and three defensive pairs that can play, it makes the other team work extra hard and take chances to rally from behind. That opens up the ice for scoring chances for the Capitals, and they were burying them to the tune of nearly five pucks a night during that January to mid-February stretch. It was not pure luck, it was the result of playing the right way.
This is a tremendous opportunity that this Capitals team has this spring to win a championship. Teams like this, on paper, don’t come around very often and to hear the players talk, they are a very close knit group, as well. We’ve heard from the players and MacLellan that the chemistry is right with this crew.
It’s time to build on that and dial everything in on hockey for the next three plus months, starting with this upcoming three game road trip to California that starts Thursday in San Jose. 10 players need new contracts after this campaign, so they can’t fall back on MacLellan filling roster holes in the offseason or relying on throwing out catch phrases like “fixing the slow starts” or “finding a killer instinct” for next year to buy themselves time. The future is now. This team will never be the same or as stacked as it is now. Talk is cheap and I can’t help but think that these guys don’t want to endure another painful playoff disappointment and the doom and gloom of another breakdown day without a Stanley Cup.
Connolly told me back in December that if this club works on its habits, they can get to where they want to go. They did that in January and early February and were extremely successful, but the BAD habits have crept back in.
So to each and every player on this team, I have one thing to say if they want to become legends and deliver the Capitals their first Championship: IT IS TIME TO WORK AND BE 100% COMMITTED AND FOCUSED ON HOCKEY.
That way they will be playing the proper way and have the right habits come April 12th or whenever game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is officially scheduled.
If they do that, they can definitely beat anyone.
If they don’t, then to paraphrase the late great Herb Brooks.
They’ll take this wasted season to their freaking grave.
THEIR FREAKING GRAVE!