Heading into the all-star break with 47 games played this season, the Capitals own the league’s best record at 35-8-4 good for 74 points, and 4 points ahead of the Chicago Blackhawks with 6 games in hand.
The Caps have allowed the least amount of goals against while ranking second in the NHL in goals scored. This team is currently on pace to win 61 games, which raises an interesting question: do the Caps have even a slim shot at setting the single-season wins record? The 1995-1996 Red Wings team led by greats Yzerman and Federov currently holds the record with 62 wins.
With the way this team has played this season, it’s definitely a possibility. It all starts with the man in net, and Braden Holtby has emerged as arguably the top goalie in the NHL this season. The Capitals play with an elevated level of confidence when Holtby is between the pipes because the guys fully trust him to stop just about anything that comes his way. Phillip Grubauer is also a very reliable backup goaltender when Holtby needs a night off.
The defense in front of Holts and Grubi has been much improved from years past. One of the ‘09-’10 teams biggest weaknesses was the blue-liners, but this season’s defensive unit has been one of the strong points. Even with injuries to Brooks Orpik and John Carlson, guys like Taylor Chorney and Nate Schmidt have really stepped up and played well in their place. The ironman Karl Alzner is blocking shots left and right, and this blue-line unit will only improve with the looming return of Brooks Orpik.
The Caps potent offensive attack has been firing on all cylinders this season, leading the league in goals per game. The first line of Ovi, Backstrom, and Oshie are playing great hockey as usual, Andre Burakovsky is showing great improvement since moving up to the second line with Kuznetsov, and Marcus Johansson’s move to center has been a success. The only slight weakness on offense is the fourth line, and once Mike Richards gets back into the swing of things, look for the scoring to increase throughout this line. Hopefully Richards’ creativity can open up some of the ice to help Brooks Laich get going.
The biggest things that could hinder the Capitals from getting to the 62 or 63 win mark are injuries and schedule. The Caps are still without Orpik and Jay Beagle, and just recently gained John Carlson back from injury after missing an extended stretch of games. Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson are now dealing with lower-body injuries, but they should hopefully return after the all-star break. The good news: Barry Trotz has instilled a strong Next Man Up mentality into this team, and the Caps have been able to play great hockey even when the injury bug has struck this year.
With regards to the schedule, 30 of the last 35 games will be played against teams with records above .500. The Caps don’t have any breaks longer than 2 days for the remainder of the season, with 4 back-to-backs remaining (or possibly more). The good news: Braden Holtby plays exceptionally well with shorter periods of rest, and the team has shown that they are capable of beating any opponent in front of them, so if the Caps get hot down the stretch, look for them to make a push towards the 60-win plateau.
Will the Capitals break the single-season mark for wins? There’s no way to answer this question with a definite yes or no. On one hand, the Caps have shown they can put together impressive winning streaks, but they have also lost a few games this season that should have been relatively easy wins. More than likely, the Caps will win 55-60 games, but I wouldn’t be mad if they proved me wrong.
All that really matters though is the Capitals’ performance in the playoffs. Whether or not they snag the President’s Trophy is irrelevant. Hoisting the Stanley Cup above their heads is really all that matters, and anything less than a championship will definitely be a disappointment.
By Gabe Mead