The Washington Capitals turned their season around back in mid-March, and aided by the poor quality of play in the Southeast Division, the Caps now stand poised to win the division in this final week of the regular season. TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis will look at how Washington got themselves to this point, and the road that lies ahead.
We’ll summarize Washington’s season this way…
- Their ability to finish on the offensive end is exceptional
- Related to that, the power play is the best in the league
- Braden Holtby is building off last year’s playoff success and becoming a respectable NHL goalie.
The Caps’ ability to finish offensively makes them a rarity in the NHL. I don’t mean that their offensive prowess is rare—they’re fifth in the league in goals scored, which is obviously good, but it’s not as though the offenses in places like Pittsburgh or Chicago are lacking. What marks Washington is unique is that they make the most of their shots.
Washington only ranks 22nd in the NHL in shots, but when you have great individual offensive talent, you can build sustained success around finishing the chances you do get. Alex Ovechkin is just such a talent and after a so-so campaign in 2012, he’s enjoyed a comeback year. Ovechkin leads the NHL with 30 goals and he needs to be a prominent part of the MVP discussion—something TheSportsNotebook will take up later this week.
Ovechkin isn’t the only player who knows how to light the lamp in D.C. Jason Chimera is a quality scorer, and Troy Brouwer’s 19 goals would make him the go-to player on a lot of teams, including some good playoff-caliber ones. There’s good passing from the center spot, with Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro both piling up big years in assists, and this team gets offensive contributions on the back end. Defenseman Mike Green has chipped in ten goals and John Carlson is a competent passer.
As a result, Washington is dangerous when they get the man advantage and power play scoring has been a big part of their success. But it’s tough to go far in the playoffs on offense, and especially if you’re relying on power play situations. That’s where the gradual development of Braden Holtby has made a difference.
You may remember Holtby from last year’s playoffs. The then-22-year-old was thrust into a starting role because of two injuries. All he did was go toe-to-toe with Boston’s Tim Thomas and the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, and lift the Capitals past the Bruins and all the way to a seventh game with the Rangers. It was an electrifying performance and readers of TheSportsNotebook will remember how thoroughly Holtby’s performance was canonized in these pages. Although as a Boston fan, maybe I was suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome.
Anyway, it was unrealistic to think that Holtby would magically become an elite goaltender for an entire season. But it was realistic to hope that the kid would build off that playoff magic and grow into a solid NHL goalie. That’s exactly what’s transpired. After a slow start, he’s in the middle of the league in save percentage. With an offense like Washington has, that’s good enough, and Holtby’s still young enough for even more improvement to be ahead.
Washington has been coming like gangbusters since mid-March, a stretch that’s seen them win 15 of 20 games. The Caps hold a three-point lead in the Southeast Division over Winnipeg, with each team having three games left this week. One of those will be tomorrow night in D.C.’s Verizon Center when the two rivals go head-to-head. Unlike a lot of NHL division races, this is no mere battle for seeding and bragging rights. With Winnipeg currently ninth in the Eastern Conference overall—the outside looking in—both teams have to assume that the Southeast only gets one playoff team. After Tuesday night, the Caps stay at home, but the opposition will be difficult, with playoff-bound Ottawa and Boston coming in.
What’s ultimately going to do Washington in—whether it’s this week or sometime thereafter—is the overall team defense. The Caps are one of the worst in the league at preventing shots and while Holtby caught lightning in a bottle for a couple weeks last spring, I wouldn’t bet on him being able to singlehandedly bail a defense out just yet. Washington needs to make some upgrades before a serious playoff run—i.e., getting to the Finals—is in the cards. But after a rough start to the year, they’re at least poised to secure a division title and the automatic #3 seed in the East. That’s something any Caps fine would have signed for around the end of February.
FLORIDA’S LOST SEASON
The Florida Panthers were last year’s Southeast Division champs and they threw a spirited seven-game series against New Jersey in the playoffs. This year has been a disaster for the Panthers. They’ve had injuries pile up, they’re last in the Eastern Conference and they haven’t even sniffed the playoff picture all year. A formula of being the worst in the NHL at both scoring goals and stopping them has amazingly not worked. The penalty kill is terrible, the goaltending atrocious, and while they have a few decent scorers, there is absolutely no depth to the attack at all. The sports fans of South Beach are undoubtedly grateful for NBA basketball right now.
THE EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Boston and Montreal are in a dead heat for the Northeast Division crown, although the Bruins have the upper hand, with one additional game to play. As it stands, the Bruins and Canadiens are playing to sandwich around the Caps in the playoff seedings, with the Northeast teams filling in the 2 & 4 seeds. Toronto is at #5, four back of the Boston/Montreal duo.
It’s packed at the bottom, with Ottawa in sixth, just one point ahead of the New York teams, the Rangers and Islanders. Winnipeg is also chasing for playoff spot here, but the fact the Jets go head-to-head with the Capitals this week make the division a more likely avenue. Whoever ends up at #8 will face Pittsburgh, as the Penguins have clinched the #1 seed in the East.