As we embarked on a new year, there seemed to be a malaise of sorts among Capitals fans. We’ve witnessed winning before, so that really doesn’t move the needle as it should—the fans are spoiled.
Washington Capitals’ Philipp Grubauer (31) of Germany blocks a shot from Dallas Stars’ Patrik Nemeth (15) of Sweden as Andre Burakovsky (65) of Austria helps against the pressure in the first period an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, in Dallas. The Stars’ Antoine Roussel (21) watches the play. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
These past two weeks, however, put the Caps back into the forefront of Washington sports fans’ minds and earned them a place in the national sports scene. Within a seven-day span, the Capitals ended the 16-game winning streak of the Metropolitan division-leading Columbus Blue Jackets in a 5-0 shutout; and future Hall-of-Famer Alexander Ovechkin tallied his 1,000th NHL point, a goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins in what became a 5-2 thrashing. The week ended with another shutout, this time a 6-0 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks, marking Washington’s eighth straight victory at the time.
The Caps now have the most points in the NHL with 68, and are riding a 13-game points streak. The only blemish in what would have been a 13-game winning streak was an 8-7 overtime loss to the Penguins on Jan. 16.
The Capitals had been playing somewhat under the radar for the past few months. Not anymore. The win streak came against several of the NHL’s hottest teams. In addition to snapping Columbus’ 16-game streak, Washington ended five-game runs by both Toronto and Pittsburgh, knocked off first-place Montreal, and recorded back-to-back shutouts with two different goalies. Those shutouts came against Chicago, the best team in the Western Conference, and the Flyers, who are trying to hold on to their playoff position. Those wins prove that it’s not just the offense that’s flying high—the Caps are getting it done at both ends of the ice. For the first time in franchise history, they recorded four shutouts in six games.
The Capitals have scored at least five goals in eight of their last 11 games for the first time since December 1992. They have displayed balanced scoring, with contributions coming from all four forward lines and the power play. Chemistry has been key; coach Barry Trotz has kept all four lines intact for about a month and they’re starting to click. So far this season, Washington has outscored its competition 52-23.
They have the best defense in the league while scoring the fifth-most goals. They’re among the NHL’s best in goal differential. They have managed to combine the offense of former head coach Bruce Boudreau with the defense of Trotz.
Talk to any general manager or coach, and he’ll tell you it all starts with the goalie. The Capitals have one of the best in the league in Braden Holtby, last year’s Vezina Trophy winner. He may be even better this season, recording a league-best six shutouts while ranking fourth in goals against average at 1.99.
Being atop the league is not a new position for this franchise, but we all know it hasn’t yet translated into postseason success. For now, let’s enjoy what has been one of the best months in franchise history. Maybe the Caps’ slower-than-average start helped them focus on the things that constitute winning hockey—hopefully it translates into the postseason.