The Capitals ultimately reached hockey’s peak, but as their decade closes with one more game Tuesday afternoon against the New York Islanders, their 2010s can be defined as a prolific stretch of sustained success, even if it didn’t always carry into the postseason. In a 10-year period that spanned two general managers and four coaches, Washington was the winningest team in the NHL, and it recorded the third-most wins in any decade in league history.
“I mean, I think you don’t always look at it as a decade or 10 years and you kind of go year to year, but it is kind of amazing when you see the numbers of what happened these last 10 years,” said General Manager Brian MacLellan, who took over for George McPhee in 2014. “The amount of wins, how well the franchise has actually done.”
No matter the result Tuesday against the Islanders, the Capitals (465 wins, 231 losses and 90 overtime losses) will have recorded the most wins of any team in the 2010s and trail only the Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s (501 wins, 160 losses and 130 ties) and the Boston Bruins of the 1970s (487 wins, 190 losses and 111 ties) as the winningest franchise in any decade.
The Capitals were one of six teams to win the Stanley Cup this decade (2018), one of seven teams to win the Prince of Wales Trophy as the Eastern Conference champion (2018), the only team to win three Presidents’ Trophies as the regular season points leader (2009-10, 2015-16, 2016-17) and the only team to win at least seven division titles (2009-10, 2010-11, 2012-13, 2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18, 2018-19).
Washington has earned 1,020 points this decade, and it will be one of just two franchises to finish with more than 1,000. (The Pittsburgh Penguins had 1,006 entering Monday’s game.) Goaltender Braden Holtby will conclude the decade ranking first among goaltenders (minimum 100 game played) in winning percentage (.612 entering Tuesday), and he is one of two goaltenders with multiple 40-win seasons in the 2010s.
“Every year I think we’ve gone into the playoffs with, ‘Oh, we’ve got a chance to win,'” MacLellan said. “Some years, it seems like we are a little closer to winning it and farther in others, but every year we’ve had a chance and we’re competitive, and if we find the right things at the end, we can win a championship.”
Maintaining a core of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Holtby and defenseman John Carlson played a major role, but MacLellan said he believes a key to the organization’s success over the past 10 years has been the complementary players the franchise has brought in. He mentioned forward T.J. Oshie, whom the team acquired via trade with the St. Louis Blues in 2015, as one example.
Capitals assistant general manager Ross Mahoney described the process of building the roster as finding the right “piece to the puzzle.” Whether that was Matt Niskanen, Lars Eller, Brooks Orpik, Michal Kempny or others, adding the right player at the right time helped the Capitals reach the pinnacle of their sport.
And while new players came in, another key to success was the way the organization did not break up its core amid all of the disappointing postseasons leading up to the Stanley Cup breakthrough in 2018. There was well-documented frustration with the number of times the Capitals came up short despite performing so consistently well during the regular season.
There was a stunning first-round loss to Montreal in 2010, a second-round exit against Tampa Bay in 2011 and early-round defeats against the New York Rangers in 2012, 2013 and 2015. Then came back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy seasons that ended in heartbreak to Pittsburgh in the second round, in 2016 and 2017.
“I just think not just the players felt that way,” Backstrom said of the brewing frustration. “I think maybe the fans were like, ‘Hey, what is going on?’ And, ‘We need to do something.’ But really grateful for the organization for sticking with us and believing in us, and that means a lot. And we can still do it. We still have a lot of years left. So let’s just do it again.”
Ovechkin will conclude the decade with the most goals of any player (437 entering Tuesday), while Backstrom will finish with the most assists (511).
The duo will become the second pair of teammates in NHL history to lead a decade in both categories while playing with one team. Chicago Blackhawks forwards Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita finished the 1960s with 429 goals and 489 assists.
The Capitals enter Tuesday 427-203-81 with Ovechkin and Backstrom in the lineup in the 2010s, earning the most standings points (935) for a pair of teammates in a decade in NHL history.
“The longevity between him and Ovi is fun to watch,” MacLellan said. “The way they complement each other and the way they’ve grown over their whole careers and can still [be] producing and still keep doing it, it is impressive to see those two play.”
And despite all of their accomplishments, and with a new decade rapidly approaching, the Capitals aren’t satisfied with their current state.
“I would hope that with all the success we’ve had over the last 10 years, you would hope you’d have another championship. At least two,” MacLellan said. “So I think that would be a goal, to win another Cup, and I think that would be great for everyone here.”
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