“We’ve got it going right now,” Washington defenseman Matt Niskanen, who had two assists, said after the game. “Guys are feeling it. Scoring up and down the lineup. Goalies have been good. Lot of things to like.”
What’s not to like? The Capitals are 37-11-6 (80 points) this season, giving them the best record in the NHL, and have been the most dominant team in 2017, outscoring opponents by 50 goals since December 31. The Minnesota Wild, led by former Capitals Head Coach Bruce Boudreau, have the next-best goal differential, plus-15.
After adjusting their margin of victory for strength of schedule, the Capitals are 1.24 goals per game better than average, ahead of the Wild (plus-0.89 SRS), Columbus Blue Jackets (plus-0.86) and Pittsburgh Penguins (plus-0.82), the league’s next three best teams. For context, the high-flying, fun-and-gun 2009-10 Capitals had an adjusted scoring margin of plus-0.90 while the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals team was at plus-0.17, making this the most dominating team in franchise history.
I know what you’re thinking: “They are always good during the regular season — get back to me when it is time for the playoffs.” But this team doesn’t have the flaws of the past, and are instead built and play much differently from other recent Capitals teams.
Alex Ovechkin leads the teams in goals (26), which is nothing new, but nine other players have double-digit goals, including role players like Jay Beagle (11), Brett Connolly (11) and Lars Eller (10).
Beagle has been so good coach Barry Trotz has occasionally rewarded him with top-line play, but it is the third line of Connolly, Eller and Andre Burakovsky that has been a huge reason for the team’s recent success.
With those three on the ice at even strength, the Capitals have outshot opponents 194 to 136. More importantly, they have outscored opponents 15 to 2, giving them the roster depth normally seen in Stanley Cup champions.
During last year’s Stanley Cup run, the Penguins saw their third line — Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino — out-shoot opponents 165 to 109, outscoring them 12-3 at even strength.
Two of the last three Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks rosters had at least 10 players score 10 or more goals during the regular season. The Boston Bruins had 12 players reach double-digit goals during their 2010-11 championship seasons.
When the Los Angeles Kings won the Cup in 2013-14, every skater on the roster that played at least 500 even-strength minutes put 53 percent or more of shot attempts in the team’s favor when they were on the ice. During the title run of 2011-12, only Jeff Carter and Mike Richards failed to reach the 50 percent mark, each finishing the regular season at 48.4 percent. The Caps have that same kind of championship-caliber depth, which could prove a pivotal difference from a season ago.
“We didn’t have that on that third line last year. We do now,” Trotz told reporters on Tuesday. “That’s good for us. It makes us a hard team to play.”
After adjusting for score effects, zone time and venue, the Capitals are putting 53 percent of even-strength shot attempts in their favor, the third-highest mark in the NHL and the highest for the franchise since the 2009-10 season. Seven of the last nine Stanley Cup champions have all been in the top-3 for adjusted shot percentage by the end of the regular season.
The defense is doing its part, too, especially on the penalty kill. The Capitals have the fourth-highest penalty-kill percentage (84.7 percent) but have reduced the number of high-danger scoring chances — those in the slot or near the goal mouth — their goaltenders face per 60 minutes of play, the lowest levels since 2007-08, the first year data is available.
That puts both of Washington’s goaltenders, Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer, in a position to succeed. And they have. Holtby has improved off his Vezina-winning season from last year and leads the league in goals against average (1.97) and shutouts (seven) with a career-high .930 save percentage. Grubauer has posted a .931 save percentage as the team’s primary backup, giving Washington 10 quality starts (games with an above-average save percentage) and three shutouts in 15 games played. According to Elias, this is the third season in team history in which two goaltenders each produced at least three shutouts for the Capitals. Al Jensen (four) and Pat Riggin (four) did it in 1983-84, Tomas Vokoun (four) and Michal Neuvirth (three) in 2011-12.
Here’s where it can all fall apart: injuries. So far, the Capitals have been uncharacteristically healthy with the exception of T.J. Oshie — the team’s second-leading scorer with 20 goals in 45 games — who missed eight games with an upper body injury and defenseman John Carlson, who missed six games with a lower body injury. Not only are the Capitals’ 19 total man-games lost to injury the lowest, by far, in the NHL (Blue Jackets are the second-healthiest team with 56 man-games lost to injury), the Capitals could join the 2008-09 New York Rangers (43 wins, 30 games lost to injury) as the only team in the past eight seasons to have more wins than games lost to injury.
I won’t blame you if you don’t want to buy in just yet, but right now this Capitals team is doing everything it can to justify their position as the Stanley Cup favorite.