The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Caps’ winning streak has them closing in on first place. Oh noooooooo.

Braden Holtby against the Penguins. (Photo by John McDonnell / The Washington Post)

The lessons of last year’s record-setting Capitals season evidently have been forgotten already. That team smashed through the league in December and January, threatened franchise history, finished with the league’s best mark … and probably peaked too soon, leading to yet another early exit from the playoffs.

So I thought we all agreed: This year’s team just needed to make the playoffs. No targets on backs. No blistering win streaks. No historical excellence. Just a humble playoff berth. Stay out of the headlines, and we’ll see you in April.

Except now the Caps have won seven straight. Over their past 18 games, they’re 14-2-2. Since the new year, they’ve downed three of the league’s top five teams, winning those games by a combined score of 14-3. By the end of Friday night — assuming the Caps handle the West-leading Blackhawks — Washington could be back atop the entire league. If they don’t chill out right this second, they might become Presidents’ Trophy favorites again, and we all know how that goes.

“So let’s just tank for a couple weeks because we have to get eighth?” wondered Matt Niskanen, when I presented this quandary. Exactly!

Yes that’s right, for the second time in two years I wandered around a Washington locker room, suggesting the potential merits of a loss or two. Yet again, my wisdom and logic did not prove convincing.

“I don’t think so,” Niskanen said.

“We’re not gonna do that,” Braden Holtby said.

“We want to be first place,” Tom Wilson said. “That’s not the problem.”

And it might be the reality, after what has to be one of the strangest first halves of a season in recent memory. Early on, the Capitals’ game seemed disjointed. Their lines were unsteady. Their 2015 wunderkind, Evgeny Kuznetsov, appeared sapped of his trademark creativity. Their steady veteran, Justin Williams, couldn’t find the back of the net. Their Vezina Trophy-winning goalie seemed unlikely to become a back-to-back winner. And despite a fine enough record, the Capitals were buried in the middle of what might be the best division in pro sports.

Now? Since Dec. 1, Kuznetsov has 17 assists, third-most in the league. In that same 20-game span, Williams has 10 goals. Holtby has the best save percentage and goals-against average of any full-time starter since December began. The Caps just finished the first half of their schedule with 59 points — their second-highest total ever, behind only last year’s group.

And so the under-the-radar Caps are now about to attract a bunch of spotlights and sirens. So much for see-you-in-April.

“I honestly just said that to someone else, that once you build these streaks and you’re getting towards the top, teams will start gunning for you even harder again,” Wilson said. “A big target on our backs.”

If you ask players what’s changed over the past few weeks, you’ll hear about intangible locker room whatzits, things that can’t be measured. Someone will suggest that the slow start was a matter of taking success for granted. Someone else will talk about focusing on details. A third player will suggest the team is now playing a bit harder. Another will say this is just the bounces evening out, that the Caps were slightly unlucky at the start of the season and have been slightly lucky in the past few weeks.

Just because you have some success doesn’t mean you’re on fire and playing at the top of your game,” Holtby said. “We don’t feel like we’re peaking. You go in stretches, and sometimes things go your way.”

Players also will say that their ruthless division should ease any concerns about peaking too early. They had nothing to play for in the final few weeks last season, but this Metro maelstrom — four of the NHL’s top six teams play in that division — makes a repeat scenario unlikely.

“It’s not going to be easy for us. I think last year it was a little easy for us,” Niskanen said. “You know, if we have to really battle in the regular season, that’s not a bad thing. I think that encourages good habits.”

And Coach Barry Trotz will say what he’s said for weeks: that the goal this season was to keep churning out steady performances, winning two out of three games or three out of four, controlling the minutes of his stars and letting Columbus and Pittsburgh soak up all the attention. Lagging behind the hottest teams in the league never set off his alarms, and he said people around the sport felt the same way.

“No one in the game came up to me and said, ‘What’s wrong with the Caps?'” Trotz said Wednesday. “Not one person.”

While there might not have been something wrong, the two biggest revelations from last season weren’t quite as spectacular. Kuznetsov and Holtby — a star second-line center and an elite goalie — made those Caps seem like legitimate contenders. The question this fall was whether Kuznetsov was the soft-handed comet who exploded last fall, or something less impressive, which is why his recent resurgence is hard to overstate.

“I mean, once you get that confidence back, it’s easier,” teammate Nicklas Backstrom said. “I don’t know, it’s hard to explain, but I’m sure he feels that way.”

And Holtby just went more than 169 minutes without allowing a goal, posting four shutouts in 16 games. That part of the recipe is apparently unchanged.

“I look at him and I’m just like, ‘Wow’; I feel like he’s in the zone, nothing’s going to get by him,” Williams said. “He looks big out there. It doesn’t seem like there’s any holes in him.”

For now, you might say the same thing about his team. They’re fourth in goal differential, with one of the league’s best penalty kills. They’ve been uncannily healthy. They commit too many penalties, have been relatively quiet on the power play — and are still on pace to become just the third Caps team to finish with at least 118 points. The previous two? They both won the Presidents’ Trophy. And then … you know.

So this hot streak is great. It wiped away the 2016 hangover, and made clear that the Caps remain a contender. Now go ahead and bottle that heat for a few more months.