As the Caps hit the halfway point of their season last Sunday, it’s time for us to check in.
Coming into the season, the narrative surrounding the Caps was that they’d suffer a Stanley Cup hangover (literally, not just as a figure of speech) and struggle in the early part of the season. Sure enough, it did take the Caps some time to get going. Through 20 games, they sat at effectively .500, with a record of 10-7-3.
But the second quarter of the season has been fantastic for the reigning champs. Win streaks of 7, 5, and 4 games propelled the Caps to a 25-12-4 record. They sit first in the Metropolitan division with 54 points, two points ahead of the Penguins with a game in hand. For a team expected to spend the season recovering, that’s pretty impressive.
Excellent play from a number of crucial players have led to the Caps’ current success. Leading the way, as always, is Alex Ovechkin, whose 30 goals to date rank first in the NHL and make him only the second player in NHL history to register 30+ goals in each of his first 14 seasons. The 33-year-old is on pace for his first 60 goal season since ‘07-08.
Nicklas Backstrom has been as good as ever (see my post). John Carlson has lived up to his new 8 year, $64 million contract, with 39 points and a +22 rating so far. His partner, Michal Kempny, is 5th in the NHL in plus/minus at +24. Braden Holtby has been solid, if not spectacular, in net with a respectable .910 save percentage.
Tom Wilson, who signed a 6-year, $31 million contract this summer, has been fantastic after returning from a 16-game suspension. With 12 goals in just 22 games, Wilson sits second on the Caps in goal scoring and only 2 goals away from matching a career best total.
Coach Todd Reirden has shown much more willingness to play young, inexperienced players than Barry Trotz did. Jakub Vrana, the most obvious beneficiary of that change, has flourished and is on pace for his first 20-goal season. With blazing speed and game-breaking skill, Vrana has shown so far why he will be a top six forward for years to come.
Pheonix Copley, another young player, has proven himself a capable backup goalie, giving top prospect Ilya Samsonov more breathing room before he’s expected to perform in the NHL. Injuries on the back end have given defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler his first taste of NHL action, and he’s been solid in his time, earning a full-time lineup spot.
Not everything has been good for the Caps. The penalty kill unit has struggled, sitting below league average with 77 percent effectiveness. The power play has also lost its way recently, going 1-for-31 over the last 9 games.
Some players have struggled, including Andre Burakovsky, Madison Bowey, and 38-year-old Brooks Orpik. Luckily, they’ve been covered by good play elsewhere.
Going forward, the Caps just need to keep doing what they’re doing. It’s hard to criticize a team that’s in first place and exceeding preseason expectations.
Still, there are things that can be improved. Don’t be surprised, for example, if Brian MacLellan makes a move for a depth defenseman at the trade deadline, especially since Christian Djoos (IR-thigh surgery) doesn’t seem likely to return soon. With a few tweaks here and there, the Caps will enter with the playoffs with a great chance at repeating as Stanley Cup champions.