The Capitals Are Right Where They Need To Be

Posted December 12, 2016

(Caps Outsider)

It would be hard to blame anyone for asserting that the Capitals simply do not seem like the same group that dominated the National Hockey League last year. In a lot of ways, they aren’t.

After averaging 3.02 goals per game during last season’s Presidents’ Trophy run, the Capitals are now sitting in an unusual, middle-of-the-pack position in terms of scoring, with 2.67 GPG.

Given that the overall team scoring is down, looking at the individual player statistics isn’t particularly pretty. Beyond the usual superstars, namely Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and a surprising Marcus Johansson, the lineup is filled with underachievers through the first quarter and change of the season.

Evgeny Kuznetsov, last year’s breakout star, has struggled mightily for most of the year. Andre Burakovsky, who was supposed to do exactly what Kuznetsov did last year, has not scored a goal since game one of the season against Pittsburgh, which at the time seemed like an extremely promising season debut.

Defenseman John Carlson only recently found the net for the first time all season. Justin Williams has struggled to get going, and this offseason’s big acquisition, Lars Eller, has done very little to contribute offensively.

The Capitals have put up some real duds among sporadic glimpses into their true potential, and it doesn’t help that the Metropolitan Division has clearly asserted itself as the best group of teams in hockey.

All the while, the Capitals find themselves at 17-7-3, which shockingly only has them pegged as a wild card team at this point in the season, and fifth in the Metro. Even more surprising is the fact that their hold on fifth place in their own division has them as the seventh best team in the league in terms of points. That is not something that you ever expect to see, but it just shows how good the division is, and the type of competition the Capitals are up against.

When we look at the Eastern Conference, the top five teams in the entire league in winning percentage come from the East. And because the Capitals have played fewer games than most of the teams in the NHL, their win percentage sits at fourth in the league, notably higher than their current division standings position.

37 points in 27 games is nothing to scoff at, and in fact puts Washington over a 110-point pace for the season. Their current pace would still put them on pace for a Presidents’ Trophy last season. This team really isn’t much different than last year’s.

Building on that, the Capitals now find themselves on a four-game winning streak, only their second of those this season. Following a few embarrassing efforts against Toronto and the New York Islanders, the team seems to be on an upswing.

Braden Holtby has won his team more than a handful of games with elite play between the pipes.

Braden Holtby has won his team more than a handful of games with elite play between the pipes.

Not to mention that of the remaining eight games in December, six are against squads currently out of playoff position. There are a lot of winnable games in the near future, and that isn’t to say that their two matchups with current playoff teams – Montreal and Philadelphia – are unwinnable by any means whatsoever.

Given the individual struggles that more than a couple of players are having early on in the season, the optimist would say that this season could end up being the reverse of the last. The post-winter storm struggles of the Capitals last season were well-documented, and if the Capitals can do just the opposite this year, which would be to pick up their play in the second half and surge into the playoffs, a different story may be written than the recurring one fans are used to.

At many times this season, the only things in the Capitals’ way have been a very strong division, and more importantly, themselves.

Lars Eller will likely score more than the 10 or 11 points he is on pace for, is a good possession forward and is a strong penalty killer. Evgeny Kuznetsov, notably in a contract year, is not a point-every-other-game talent. Andre Burakovsky is too skilled to continue his current slump for much longer. Justin Williams seems to be getting back in his groove. There is a lot of reason to believe that these players will contribute big time as we get deeper and deeper into the season.

The Capitals are a top-five team in terms of possession, and their defense is second in the league in goals allowed per game with 2.11. On a related note, the Capitals still have Braden Holtby, who is somewhat quietly putting together another extremely impressive season and just posted his 25th career shutout on Sunday.

Right now, the Capitals seem to be looked down upon sometimes because they aren’t on the same torrid pace as last year. Except, they almost are, and they almost surely haven’t played their best hockey yet.