The latest bit of evidence was Wednesday night’s 3-2 victory over the Boston Bruins, as marquee a matchup as the sport can offer before the holidays. Oshie scored twice, Braden Holtby made 30 saves, the penalty kill snuffed all five of the Bruins’ chances, Carlson broke a tie early in the third period, and the Caps forgot what might have been their worst performance of the season two nights earlier against, against . . . who was that against again?
“We didn’t go over one shift of that game against Columbus,” Coach Todd Reirden said.
Right, right. Columbus. It was against Columbus. And they lost, 5-2.
“That game was over and done with,” Reirden said, “and we’re not going to talk about it.”
That’s a strength not of who these guys are becoming but who they are already. No hockey team is fully formed before half the season is gone, and there are obstacles — unforeseen obstacles — still ahead. But these Capitals are buoyed not only by their best-in-the-league record, which we will get to, but by the way they handle themselves daily. That first period against the Blue Jackets? It stunk, and no one hid from it.
“We’re a pretty self-aware team,” Carlson said.
This isn’t a Caps group from, say, five years ago that might have taken a performance like that and argued, “But we’ve been so good for so long.” This is a group that takes a performance like that and is embarrassed that they weren’t better.
“One of the, I would say, strengths between the coaches and players is there’s very honest evaluation,” Reirden said.
So let’s honestly evaluate the Caps to this point: They’re pretty darned good. To review:
Before this week, they played four straight on the road. They won all four, including an unprecedented accomplishment for this franchise in sweeping the always perilous three-city California segment. In 33 games, they have gained at least a point in 28. They haven’t lost back-to-back in regulation all season. Do that, and it’s hard to do anything but move forward.
“We believe we can win any game we play,” said Holtby, whose mastery of the Bruins is otherworldly, “and whatever happened in the past doesn’t matter.”
That includes Monday night’s clunker against Columbus. There are 82 games. The inexplicable happens. This group knows: When it does, flush it.
So with the holidays approaching, not a bad place to be. No team has more wins. No team has fewer regulation losses. No team has more points.
“We’re still definitely a work in progress,” Reirden said.
Even after more than a third of the season, that makes sense given two factors: a roster that is working in five skaters who weren’t in the organization at this point last year, and the maladies that come along with a hockey season — some avoidable, some not. The Caps have endured all varieties. Evgeny Kuznetsov was suspended for three games at the beginning of the year for what the NHL called “inappropriate conduct,” and happened to follow a positive test for cocaine while he was playing for his native Russia. Garnet Hathaway, a new fourth-line winger, was suspended three games for — let me double-check this — spitting on an opponent. (Ick.)
Throw in injuries to Nicklas Backstrom, Carl Hagelin, Richard Panik, Nic Dowd and Michal Kempny, and Monday was the first time the lineup is fully intact. On Wednesday, they added more than players. They added an edge because the Bruins — well, the Bruins ain’t the Blue Jackets.
“These are the games you get up for,” Hagelin said.
Yes, Boston had stumbled some headed into Wednesday night. But all those categories the Caps lead the league in — most wins, fewest regulation losses, most points — the Bruins were in second. These are the past two Eastern Conference champions. Boston’s top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak is among the league’s most dangerous. These two teams are using the first part of the season to establish themselves as the most likely to meet in the conference finals next spring.
“It was fun to play in that atmosphere,” Carlson said.
And be honest: For the Capitals, it’s just fun to play the Bruins. There are still people with the Caps who grit their teeth when the end of the last season comes up. The Stanley Cup from the previous spring has a way of healing all wounds, and the franchise is forever changed because of it. But if you want to curdle the cheese of Caps officials, bring up the Game 7 loss in the first round last season to Carolina. Not just because Washington was better than Carolina. But because of who awaited — the upstart New York Islanders, followed by Boston.
The Capitals essentially lock the Bruins in a closet and bring them out only for their own amusement. Since beginning of the 2014-15 season, they have gone 16-1-0 against Boston. That’s not, say, 16-1-0 against Florida. That’s 16-1-0 against a franchise that has averaged 100 points a season over the past five years, that came a win away from the Cup last spring, that annually expects deep playoff runs.
So excuse the lingering frustration for the Caps’ franchise that the upcoming opponent, had they beaten the Hurricanes in the first round, would have eventually been Boston. And for whatever reason, Boston has no chance against Washington.
“Half the battle, I think, is believing you’re in a good spot against an opponent,” Reirden said, “and you have a mental, I’d say, feeling of superiority or confidence.”
If this was, then, a preview of a playoff matchup in four or five months, so be it. The Caps can handle it. Holtby’s record against Boston now: 18-3-0. Fine, Tuukka Rask, Boston’s top goalie, gave the net to backup Jaroslav Halak on Wednesday night. But make a date for the spring, and the Caps would relish it.
Shoot. There’s 49 games till the playoffs start.
“We’ve just got to keep rolling and keep building and keep getting better,” Backstrom said. “We can’t be satisfied even if we’re in a good spot right now.”
They’re in a very good spot because they’re a very good team. Enjoy Oshie’s goals from Wednesday night because the second one, in particular, was spectacular. Embrace what is developing into Carlson’s career year because he now has 45 points and anything seems possible. Know that they can win when Alex Ovechkin doesn’t score. They believe they can beat any team any way on any night in any building — because they have proved exactly that.