As Todd Reirden prepared for his first NHL head-coaching gig and the especially unusual situation he was stepping into, he researched defending champions in other sports and how they had handled the following season. He found no perfect blueprint. He probably couldn’t have predicted that his Washington Capitals would turn into virtually the same team that ended up hoisting the Stanley Cup last year.
Through 68 games, the Capitals have a nearly identical record (40-21-7) to what they had at this point last season (38-23-7), and their power play and penalty kill are similar, too. And Washington again is getting hot after the trade deadline, on a six-game winning streak since new acquisitions Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen both joined the lineup.
But five of those victories came against teams out of the playoff race; the Capitals will be tested more in their final 14 games of the regular season, 10 of which are against clubs poised for the postseason.
The Capitals probably didn’t plan to take the same path in their ambitions for repeating as champions, but they are looking increasingly comfortable the closer they get to the playoffs.
“It doesn’t feel the exact same, really,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “Last year, there was still a lot of what-ifs. This year, we’re going in with a little more confidence in our game, in our ability of what we have to do to win games, to go deep in the playoffs. Every year is a little bit different. Obviously, you can look at the stats and the records and stuff like that, but the one thing that is the same is how well everyone is getting on board right now.”
Around this time last season, the Capitals made some systematic tweaks, particularly in their defensive-zone structure, and that ultimately fostered the tight-checking, suffocating style that won the Stanley Cup. Those changes are still in place, so even as the team slumped halfway through this campaign, there were no wholesale changes. Adding a speedy and aggressive forechecking forward in Hagelin and another puck-moving defenseman in Jensen has helped the Capitals in the same way acquiring blue-liner Michal Kempny did last season: They’re able to move the puck out of their own end more expediently to spend more time in the offensive zone.
But Washington also is playing more diligently within its system, not quite to the level it did last postseason but trending in that direction.
“After the trading deadline, I think we talked a lot in the locker room that this is the team who’s going to do it and move forward,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “I felt like after that we really stepped up and everyone is playing into our system. We’ve been playing a lot better, too. Moving forward here, we want to be a hard team to play against, and it starts now.”
Reirden has been pleased that the Capitals are not allowing their opponents as much easy transition offense by managing the puck better of late, not forcing as many plays through the neutral zone. In the offensive zone, Washington is hanging on to the puck more, extending shifts to wear down the opposite bench.
“Now when they do get a turnover against us, they’re just trying to get the red line and change,” Reirden said.
It’s encouraging that the bottom-six forwards corps, uninspiring for most of the season, has been leading the way for puck possession, what Reirden calls “grind shifts” because they tire the other team and allow the Capitals to deploy one of their top two lines against a fatigued unit.
“I think we’re playing smart,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “That’s the most important thing. If you see all of the games, like, if we have a bad start, we try to not rush it. We try to play the system, what we believe works. I think it’s a good thing.”
The Capitals have the hardest strength of schedule to finish the regular season. They’re in first place in the Metropolitan Division with 87 points, though the New York Islanders are just two points back and have played one fewer game. If Washington maintains its place in the standings, it would claim its fourth consecutive division title. But just like last year, it’s more concerned with continuing to ramp up for the playoffs, where maybe that will play out identically, too.
“I don’t think we can just flip a switch when Game 1 of the playoffs starts,” forward Brett Connolly said. “You want to be going into the playoffs feeling good about your game and confident. There’s definitely a mental side of it now where we did get over that hump last year and we can realize that we do have a team that can ultimately do it because you get that belief that you can.”