Wednesday night’s decisive win over the Penguins was not only a huge game in the Metropolitan Division, but it also quietly marked the 41st game of the 2016-2017 campaign – the halfway point in the Capitals season. So what do we know with 50% of the games in the books?
1) Last season’s overall level of play is attainable this season. – After the first 20 games, I would have had some doubt here. Sluggish, disjointed, and at times uninspired play, has given way to some pretty impressive hockey (for the most part) in the last 15 games. Trotz used the first 20 games to collect (fancy stat) data for every line combination possible. The research is essentially over for this season, and the Caps are getting to work. With a win against Chicago on Friday coupled with a Columbus loss, the Capitals will be back atop the NHL standings. Sound familiar? (“Right back where we started from“).
2) The Capitals defense is one of the best in the league – Regardless of whether or not you subscribe to the mantra that “defense wins championships”, this season’s D-core is even better than last seasons, and has shown signs of potentially being the best in the league by season’s end. Sure we’ve had to deal with a slumping John Carlson, and the occasional Orlov goof, but things have been going extremely well for the defensive pairs. Ignore those whining about this pair or that pair. The fact of the matter is, the Caps defense is championship-caliber.
3) Holtby is Holtby – Like many of the Caps, Braden had a rather sluggish start to the season. Whether it was due to his participation (or lack there of) in the World Cup of Hockey, or just a post-Vezina malaise is insignificant at this point. Holtby has reached and sustained a level of play equal to last years play. In addition, backup Philipp Grubauer has also been strong in the first half, so all things behind the blue line seem to be shaping up nicely.
4) The Capitals Penalty Kill is the best it’s been in years – The Capitals penalty kill has been the most consistent component of the team through the first 41 games. There is nothing that needs fixing, or even minor tweaks that need to be made, The penalty kill is most definitely championship-caliber.
5) The offense is potent enough to win a championship – Another victim of the sluggish start syndrome, the Capitals offense has begun to click on all cylinders and scorch even the best of defenses. The Caps have scored 21 goals in the last five games and 29 goals in the last seven, against some of the best teams in the league.
6) The power play is not good enough to win a championship – After floundering for most of the first quarter of the season, the power play showed signs of life for a few games in December, but has quickly returned to their early season ways. Assuming this will “eventually come around” seems less likely with each passing game. The Caps may need to consider an overhaul of the general strategies implemented, and the players identified to execute the strategies.
7) The shootout is below average – Somewhat surprisingly, the Capitals shootout prowess is non-existent, currently 1-4 on the season. Braden Holtby has never been strong in this area of the game, registering a sub-500 record over his NHL career. The surprise this season has been the inability to score in shootouts. However, in the long run, and particularly in the playoffs, this will not be an issue. Just make the playoffs and this one goes away.
THE JURY IS STILL OUT
8) Evgeny Kuznetsov – After a slumbering 53 regular season games (dating back to last March), where Kuznetsov registered just three goals, Kuzy is showing all the signs of breaking out of his slump cocoon. His speed and vision on the ice and playmaking has resembled his play from late 2015. So it’s unknown how the next half of the season will go. Kuzy shut down at the end of February last season. If this happens again, the Capitals post season hopes will diminish rapidly.
9) Andre Burakovsky – Another fascinating enigma. Burakovsky has been about as “streaky” as the come. Two goals on opening night, then a 26-game scoreless stretch that was followed by a three-game benching. Immediately following the benching, ‘Bura’ was back on the score sheet, almost like a light switch. The Caps will need both Bura and Kuzy to align their cycles and streaky play for peak play in the spring.
WORDS OF CAUTION
10) Injuries – The Capitals have been extremely fortunate with player injuries (wood-knocking in background). The Capitals have a total of 10 “man-games” missed due to injury – the least in the NHL so far this season. TJ Oshie has 7 of those 10 games. This may or may not balance out in the second half of the season.
And with that, the stage is set for the back-half of the season and push to the playoffs.
By Jon Sorensen