The Washington Capitals have been humming along here, distancing themselves from the competition at an increasingly rampant pace. Despite having played the second fewest number of total games thus far, they have more wins than anyone else. During a time in which parity reigns supreme with the number of loser points being handed out keeping teams clustered together closely, they’re the only division leader holding a double-digit lead.
In theory, a legitimately great goaltender playing at the top of their game remains the most valuable chess piece on the board. While the sweetest and most sustainable long-term music is made when all of the figurines up front are working together in perfect harmony, what separates the goalie from the others in importance as they lurk in the background is two-fold: they’ll essentially always be on the ice, and unlike with anyone else there’s ultimately only so much the rest of their teammates can do to shelter them.
Given enough time the puck will eventually expose a lousy netminder, while a dominant stopper will always give their team a chance to stay competitive regardless of how much quality (or more appropriately, lack thereof) there is in front of them. A goalie truly is the ultimate equalizer, either by mopping up mistakes and masking various flaws, or by submarining the efforts of everyone else. That’s not to say that there aren’t players at other positions who can markedly impact those around them, because there undoubtedly are, but it’s remarkable how much a goalie can single-handedly move the needle. It being the position whose performance we can project with the lowest level of certainty year over year is surely ironic, if not somewhat tragic.
The snapshot is a weekly colmn that isn’t focused only on the previous week but also on the season-to-date. But let’s talk about Saturday night in Buffalo.
The Caps threw up a dud. They looked lifeless for much of the game and lacked the sharpness we’ve come accustomed to seeing from them as they’ve run roughshod over the rest of the league.
I couldn’t be less concerned. The Caps were due for a bad performance with a bad result. Heck, the Caps are probably due for a 5-10 game stretch where they throw up multiple duds, simply because it’s very hard to keep up the pace they were on for 82 games. And that’s okay.
Our eyes should still remain fixed on the prize: Winning 4 sets of 7-game weighted coin flips in the spring.
For the past eight games, the Caps have been without blue-line regulars Brooks Orpik (who has missed the past 28 games) and John Carlson. While there’s some gray area as to whether this duo was being used as the team’s first or second defensive pair when both were healthy this season, they were unquestionably a heavily relied upon top-four pairing.
Since Carlson and Orpik have both been out, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt have been reunited as defensive partners on the Caps second pairing. This duo was fantastic for the team as the third pairing before Orpik got injured. While Schmidt has been playing in the top-four since Orpik went down, this is Orlov’s first time in the top-four this season and the first chance this duo has had to prove whether they can thrive in a larger role.
While small sample size warnings apply (eight games), so far the pairing has shown they are more than capable of not only handling, but also excelling in, a top-four role.
The incarnation of the Washington Capitals we’ve seen through the first half of the 2015-16 season has been nothing if not a well-oiled machine, one that’s been expertly constructed from the top down, with the singular purpose of finally getting over the postseason hump. Surely no team is without flaws, and the Caps aren’t necessarily an exception to that rule. But any of those relatively minute shortcomings have been suppressed by their laundry list of overwhelming strengths.
While everything has once again run through the usual suspects at the top of the roster, what makes this version of the Capitals particularly nightmarish to go up against is that there doesn’t really appear to be a particularly glaring weakness to be exploited by a crafty game plan.
Whether it be through elite goaltending, top-notch special teams, strong 5v5 play, luck, some sort of Calvinistic predestination, or a of combination of all of the above, the Caps just keep winning. They’ve lost just seven times in regulation through the first 41 games entering Sunday’s tilt against the Ottawa Senators.
The good news is that the 5v5 play continues to come back to life after a prolonged stretch in which the Caps were relying heavily upon MVP-caliber play of Braden Holtby and elite special teams. The bounce back comes at a time when perhaps it’d be understandable if the process and results dipped, as injuries and suspensions have forced the team to call upon their depth recently, particularly on the blue line.
Hockey is fun and this team should be cherished. This group of players won’t be together forever.
Here’s a look at the numbers as of noon on Sunday.
The Capitals have played sixteen games since the beginning of December. In that time, the team added 24 standings points, making them one of the hottest teams in the league, but their 5v5 performance was actually in the league’s bottom third, between Philadelphia and Saturday night’s victors, the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Possession doesn’t tell the whole story. Braden Holtby has been spectacular, and Washington’s special teams have been brilliant. Still, there’s reason for alarm: the 5v5 Caps of the last month were better than the 2013-14 Oates!Caps by just 0.4 percent. Without a marked improvement in even-strength play, outcomes will begin to catch up with possession. The only good alternative is for the Caps to begin playing better.
In this week’s snapshot, the Caps have begun to play better.
To note that Jason Chimera‘s 13.3 percent shooting percentage isn’t likely to last does not take anything away from what the Ice Cheetah has done this season. Pointing this out doesn’t subtract any of the 10 goals he has. The same goes for the Caps as a team. Mentioning that their possession game has been slipping doesn’t take away any of their wins. It doesn’t cost them any points in the standings or make their winning streak any less enjoyable. Instead, the point is that the winning is unlikely to continue with the possession numbers they’ve posted lately.
Truth be told, I think the Caps’ possession will bounce back, and the win on Saturday against Montreal showed signs of that. To go through a dip that is below the team’s talent level, but have the goaltending, special teams, and some luck help rack up the wins isn’t a bad place to be.
The Caps have won a lot of games recently in which they were outplayed. I think it’s unlikely the Caps will be outplayed as much moving forward.
Friday night’s thrilling comeback win over Tampa Bay propelled the Caps into first place in the NHL standings. Despite the 5v5 process still not being as sound as it was in the first month of the season, the Caps continue to rack up wins at a breakneck pace. There are reasons for that, some of which we’ve touched on in recent snapshot and some of which we’ll get into below.
But first, let’s get this out of the way: This team is fun.
One of the aims of the snapshot is to offer a sober analysis of what the underlying numbers say and where the team is headed. The concerns noted in recent snapshots still stand. But, to go off the snapshot script a bit, this team is simply fun to watch. The skill level in the top-six is dazzling, and rarely does a game go by without some sort of highlight-reel pass or goal.