The Capitals aren’t “there” yet under Dale Hunter, but you can see flashes. I’ve noticed the team has started to pick up its physicality a bit, particularly when it comes to fighting, and that they’re really starting to concentrate on “punishing” opponents.
That’s not something that will win a single game, per se, but over a seven game playoff series it pays huge dividends (see the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins, who beat the stuffing out of the Washington Capitals for seven games and eventually won the Stanley Cup). I’ve always been envious of the Penguins’ ability to forecheck and put pressure on their opponents, and it looks like the Capitals are headed in that same direction.
Perhaps the best thing about the Capitals recently is that they’ve become “watchable” again. I wrote a while ago, pre-Boudreau firing, about how much I hated watching this team. They weren’t very competitive, completely uncreative offensively, and devoid of any sort of passion whatsoever. They were a textbook case of a team that was completely floundering and had checked out.
Now they’re skating harder and pressing more. Alex Ovechkin is blasting people. They’re making great passes and holding on to leads at the end of games, despite shoddy goaltending (and boy, does that Tomas Vokoun contract look even more awesome right now).
As well as they’re playing, there are still some pretty gaping holes. Despite the fact that they blew away Toronto on the power play the other night, it’s still been beyond terrible as of late. The same can be said for the road penalty kill (reaching Leaf-ian levels), and the road in general (the Capitals are the only team in the top eight of the Eastern Conference right now with a sub-.500 road record). They’re still prone to bad defensive lapses throughout games and go through stretches where they get penned in their own zone for excruciatingly long periods of time. And that goaltending. Oh, the goaltending.
Philadelphia on Tuesday is a gigantic test of where this team is right now and where it could be headed. So far, they’ve beaten Ottawa twice and Toronto in the Dale Hunter era, and while wins are good, both of those teams will be playoff longshots at best (although I think Toronto will sneak in).
The Flyers lead the conference at the moment and are rolling, having won five in a row. It would be a huge boost in confidence to beat them, and in the same vein, a loss would be a pretty massive blow, showing that, at the moment at least, while the Caps can win games, they just can’t beat anyone good to do it. One game does not make a season, but right now, the Caps can make a really big statement to remind the league that they may be down for the moment, but they certainly aren’t out.
Remember when watching the Capitals used to be fun? It looks like those days are starting to come back. And that’s bad news for the rest of the league.
More from Washington Post Sports:
Capitals Insider: Jagr returns to Verizon Center
Capitals Insider: Vokoun to start vs. Flyers
Box Seats: Is Hunter the right man for the job?