If you bleached the red out of their jerseys, stripped their surnames from their backs and their team’s name from their fronts, traveled to almost any point in time and to any hockey-loving city in North America, you could drop these Washington Capitals in, incognito, and the reaction by the locals would certainly be: These guys are good enough to win the Stanley Cup.
Stop gritting your teeth and uncover your eyes, Washington, because they are. We can dance around it all we want, but these Caps are killing teams now, absolutely killing them. Thursday night, they beat the Detroit Red Wings, 6-3. Whew. These days, that’s a nail-biter.
Let’s add that to other scores since 2017 began: four 5-0 victories, one by 6-0, 13 games in their past 19 in which they have scored at least five times.
Push the numbers aside and get to the haze that hangs over it all. This is the best team of the Alex Ovechkin era, playing the best hockey of the Alex Ovechkin era.
So, then, this is the year?
This is the year.
I know, I know. My goodness gracious, I know. Don’t think it. Certainly don’t say it.
But if not now, then when?
“I just think we’re a lot more complete than I feel like we’ve been in the past,” said defenseman John Carlson, who scored the go-ahead goal in the third.
“We had a good team last year,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “But I feel like we’re playing with better confidence now, and I feel like it’s calmer, too . . . Hopefully we can stay calm like this.”
I am aware of the calendar. I checked it three or four times. It is February, and surely other Capitals teams in other Februaries have uttered similar assessments about why that particular team was structured in a better way, or was better mentally, or more complete, or whatever was needed to make a difference in April and beyond.
But there is no chance this team or this town will be calm in April. It’s part of the drill by now. These Capitals have not been transported to another town in another time, where they could simply be assessed, anonymously, on their own merits. They know the franchise’s history, whether they think it matters or not. Optimism is prescribed at your peril.
And yet, watch the games. They scored six times Thursday night — the 10th straight home game in which they have at least five goals, which is absurd — and Ovechkin didn’t even have a point. In their past 21 games, they are outscoring teams by more than 21/2 goals per night.
Has there ever been a stretch like this?
“I don’t think so,” Carlson said.
So to project a happier spring ending, we look for what is different about this group. (Parental advisory: The following two paragraphs may be unsuitable for children under the age of — well, anyone who cares about these guys, really.)
The 2009-10 Capitals were the first Presidents’ Trophy winners in franchise history, still the highest-scoring team of the past two decades. But as exciting as that team was, remember that it allowed 2.77 goals per game, directly in the middle of the pack that season. It’s as if that was the year Washington — not the club, but the city — learned what responsible hockey was and was not. Those Caps racked up 121 points, the most of any team in the past 10 years. And they were bounced by eighth-seeded Montreal in an absolute groin-kick of a first-round playoff series.
The 2015-16 Presidents’ Trophy winners, Coach Barry Trotz’s second team here, actually won two more games than the ’09-’10 version. More importantly, they allowed 40 fewer goals. They played, as hockey folks would say, a “sound” brand of hockey. But when they reached the second round of the playoffs, Pittsburgh was a little faster and a little deeper. Out in six games.
So what can we see in February that might mean something in two — or even three — months, something that distinguishes this group from those who have authored all the disappointments from the past?
Break down this team. Exactly what do you point to as a weakness? Not goaltending. Braden Holtby is an all-star who won the Vezina Trophy last year — and now has a goals-against average that is a quarter of a goal lower. Not overall defense. Since Ovechkin’s rookie season of 2005-06, only two teams have averaged fewer goals allowed than these Caps. Their power play ranks seventh in the league, their penalty kill fourth. They have won 18 games by at least three goals, 10 by at least four. No team has more.
And their depth. This is unprecedented in the Ovechkin era. An example: The Capitals desperately want speedy 20-year-old forward Jakub Vrana to find consistency in the minors so he could be a potential weapon in the playoffs. But who, exactly, do you bump from the lineup? Maybe, if the injury Andre Burakovsky suffered Thursday night holds him out for a while — as Trotz suggested afterward — Vrana gets a chance. But it’s difficult to find a spot for anyone — whether they come from the minors or by trade — given the team’s current, stout constitution.
“It’s been a good stretch here,” said winger T.J. Oshie, who scored twice and cleverly created a turnover against a fatigued Detroit line to set up Carlson’s goal. “We want to keep going.”
Keeping it going doesn’t mean through, say, Saturday’s game against Anaheim or the bye week that follows. It means into springtime. All the fans know it. What we’ve been conditioned to look for are mental fissures, because by this point in the franchise’s development we’re completely convinced they’ll surface somewhere, somehow. The Capitals understand that.
“What you want to recognize is that last year, we didn’t have any adversity, and it made us soft,” Trotz said. “This year, we recognize that, and we’re not going to get softer. We’re going to build our game. We’re going to build our game so we’re ready.”
The fan base must be ready, too, for the full buy-in. Don’t pick at the scabs and the scars. Cover them up. This is the best team you have seen here, playing the best, most durable brand of hockey. Go back to the time when you could convince yourself that anything is possible, because it is.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.