Best Capitals Ever?: NHL of the week, Jan. 11

Feature photo courtesy of Keith Allison

After missing the playoffs for the first time in seven years in the 2013-14 season, the Washington Capitals hired head coach Barry Trotz, who was removed of his coaching duties with the Nashville Predators. The defensive-minded coach overhauled the Capitals’ system and brought dramatic improvement to the team, which went from ninth-worst in goals allowed to sixth-best in 2014-15.

Washington returned to the playoffs, and even briefly got a monkey off its back by winning a Game 7 versus the New York Islanders in the first round. A bigger monkey showed up to town in the form of the New York Rangers during round two however, and another Capitals season was put to rest by the Broadway Blueshirts, again in a Game 7.

The pain of many abbreviated postseason runs is building up for Capitals fans, but in year two of Trotz’s reign, early signs suggest all that could be alleviated come June. Halfway through 2015-16, it looks like the Capitals are fielding their best team in franchise history, one that currently leads the league by five points in the standings.

There are plenty of similarities between this Washington squad and those of the late 2000s. Their power play remains one of the most fearsome in the league, Alex Ovechkin continues to blast the puck past opposing netminders and Nicklas Backstrom still sets him up to do so. The Capitals have scored the second-most goals in the league, reminiscent of the 2009-10 team that won the President’s Trophy and produced the highest goal output.

Most important, there are a lot of things different about this team. Trotz has managed to flawlessly merge the strengths of his Predators teams with the best characteristics of the Ovechkin era of Capitals hockey. The result is a hybrid behemoth, a compilation of an “Ovi”-powered offense, a shot-stifling defense and a Pekka Rinne-esque performance from goalie Braden Holtby.

Holtby broke out last year in a workhorse campaign that saw him play 73 regular season games. He stopped 92.3 percent of shots, allowed 2.22 goals against on average and had a goals against percentage minus of 90, a statistic in which the league average is 100 and the lower the mark, the better. He finished fourth in the Vezina Trophy voting as a result.

One would think Holtby might be fatigued heading into 2015-16, but that has not been the case, and Holtby has actually gotten even better. His numbers now stand at a .932 save percentage (4th best in NHL), a 1.93 goals against average (3rd), and an 81 goals against percentage minus. He’s also accumulated the second-most goalie point shares, trailing only Florida’s Roberto Luongo as the most important goalie to his team.

Holtby, along with a defense that has allowed the 9th-fewest shots against per game, has made the Capitals incredibly difficult to score against, with only one team allowing fewer goals (Luongo’s red-hot Panthers). The pairing of the second-best offense with the second-best goal-prevention defense has allowed Washington to go 13-1-1 over its last 15 games, and could grant the Capitals a Stanley Cup this postseason.

The last six Stanley Cup winners share a common thread: every team was in the top five in terms of fewest goals allowed in the regular season. Offense, meanwhile, was all over the place in the league rankings for their respective years:

Year

Team Goals For Ranking Goals Against Ranking
2014-15 Chicago Blackhawks

16th

1st

2013-14

Los Angeles Kings

25th

1st

2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks 2nd

1st

2011-12 Los Angeles Kings 29th

2nd

2010-11

Boston Bruins

3rd

3rd

2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks 4th

5th

In a league that has seen scoring dry up, it’s been the teams that consistently limit the opposition’s goals that end up victorious. No Capitals team has fit into this model of modern NHL success quite like this year’s does. The 2009-10 team led the league in goals but was 16th in goals allowed, as Jose Theodore, Semyon Varlamov and the defense were all roughly average. The 1997-98 team, the only in franchise history to reach the Stanley Cup Final, was 13th in scoring and 10th in goal prevention. They were an average playoff team that relied on goalie Olaf Kolzig to have a good regular season and to get even hotter in the postseason to make it as far as the Final.

This is likely the Capitals’ best chance yet to win their first Stanley Cup. The Rangers are once again in the playoff mix and based on how often the teams have met in the past, it would not be surprising if Washington were forced to once again face its demons. That’s fine, because the Capitals have never been better suited for an exorcism.

Three stars of the week

Alex Ovechkin, RW, Washington Capitals: Five goals this week put the Great Eight beyond the 500 goal milestone, which came Sunday in a 7-1 drubbing of the Ottawa Senators. He then burned Erik Karlsson en route to No. 501. Ovechkin also scored two goals the day before against the Rangers.

Petr Mrazek, G, Detroit Red Wings: Mrazek allowed two goals in three games last week, picking up a shutout on the road against the New Jersey Devils. He stopped 87 of 89 shots faced against the Devils, Sharks and Ducks.

Louis Domingue, G, Arizona Coyotes: Similar to Mrazek, Domingue took three victories, letting in three goals in total while blocking 86 of 89 shots to defeat the Canucks, Flames and Predators. Suddenly, the Coyotes are second in the Pacific Division and surprisingly in playoff position.

Tidbits from around the league:

Jarome Iginla cleaned up a mess in front of Kings goalie Jhonas Enroth’s net to score his 600th goal, making him the 19th in NHL history to reach the milestone.

Games of the week:

Last week: Capitals 4, Rangers 3 (OT): As mentioned before, Ovechkin collected two goals, including the overtime winner in a finish that must be seen to be believed. Holtby made a miraculous kick save on Derek Stepan, Ovechkin gathered the puck behind his net and took it all the way down the ice before beating Henrik Lundqvist.

This week: Penguins @ Lightning (Fri. 7:30): Sidney Crosby is heating up and the Lightning’s Ondrej Palat is back from injury. This matchup features two teams that might be starting to find their way.

Rangers @ Capitals (Sun. 5:00): Last week was so fun, why not do it again?

Connor Mount

Connor Mount

Senior Staff Writer at The Left Bench
Connor Mount is an analytics enthusiast, which is polite for "sports nerd." Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, Class of 2017.
Connor Mount
About Connor Mount 164 Articles
Connor Mount is an analytics enthusiast, which is polite for "sports nerd." Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, Class of 2017.