Washington hit the midpoint of its season in a familiar spot — in sole possession of first place in the Metropolitan Division. But the path to the division lead has been different than in past years. With six regulars leaving the Caps in the offseason, they started the season with modest expectations. Here’s what we’ve learned about the team through the first 41 games.
Alex Ovechkin still has it
Alex Ovechkin’s overtime game-winner Tuesday in Carolina was the perfect way to cap one of the best first halves of his career. A season after Washington’s captain was held to 33 goals over 82 games, he already has racked up a league-best 26 tallies through 41 games. Ovechkin, 32, is on pace for his eighth 50-goal campaign and could become the NHL’s oldest goal-scoring leader in 43 years. He has been especially efficient at even-strength. His 19 goals in five-on-five play are three more than he had all of last season.
Tom Wilson is taking the next step
Since taking Tom Wilson in the first round of the 2012 draft, the Capitals have envisioned the 6-foot-4, 218-pound right winger as a top-six forward. Now in his fifth season, Wilson has filled that role by taking advantage of opportunities created by the departures of Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson and an early-season injury to Andre Burakovsky. Wilson recently spent 17 games on the No. 1 line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and the Caps went 12-2-3 over that stretch. With six goals this season, Wilson is one shy of matching his single-season high.
The kids are alright
The Capitals had very little space under the salary cap this season, so the team had to rely on rookies to develop rather than fill their spots with expensive veterans. Winger Jakub Vrana, center Chandler Stephenson and defensemen Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos have all emerged as fixtures in the lineup. Vrana, above, ranks fourth on the team with 10 goals. Djoos had a goal and an assist in a win over New Jersey last Saturday that moved the Capitals into first place. The class could become the first quartet of Capitals rookies to play at least 50 games in the same season since 1981-82.
John Carlson is surging in contract year
With free agency pending, defenseman John Carlson has picked a fitting time to enjoy a career year. The timing has been ideal for the Capitals, too, after Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk and Nate Schmidt left in the offseason. An early-season injury to No. 1 defenseman Matt Niskanen created another gap. Carlson, 27, has skated a career-high 26:20 per game. He led the team in ice time in all 13 games that Niskanen missed from Oct. 14 to Nov. 12. Through 41 games, Carlson ranks second among all defensemen with 31 points, trailing only John Klingberg of the Stars, who has 35.
Offseason bargains are working out
A tight budget forced general manager Brian MacLellan to go bargain hunting in the offseason. He signed wingers Alex Chiasson and Devante Smith-Pelly to one-year deals for $600,000 and $650,000 respectively. Both of them scored in Tuesday’s 5-4 overtime win over the Hurricanes, and both have been key contributors throughout the season. Chiasson has seven goals and nine points this season while ranking second among Capitals forwards in shorthanded ice time. Smith-Pelly, above, has played on the No. 1 line and has already exceeded his totals from last season with six goals and 13 points.