Can the Washington Capitals Win the Stanley Cup This Year?
It can’t be easy to be a fan of the Washington Capitals.
That may sound a bit weird, since the Caps are routinely among the best teams in the National Hockey League. They earned their second straight President’s Trophy this year as the top regular-season team in the league, have won their division seven times in the past decade, have boasted a winning percentage of .549 or higher in 10 straight seasons, and have been below .500 just six times since 1981-82 – when the franchise was in its seventh year of existence.
However, regular-season wins don’t mean much when you can’t back them up in the playoffs. And the Capitals have become the NHL’s poster child when it comes to post-season shortcomings.
Not only have they only been to one Stanley Cup final in their 42-year history (1998, when they were abruptly swept aside by the Detroit Red Wings), they’ve only made it past the second round of the playoffs on two occasions.
Add to that the fact that the Nationals routinely crap the bed when they make it to the post-season, and that the city’s four professional teams have combined to win three championships (all won by the Redskins), and it makes for a lot of sports heartbreak in the nation’s capital.
But fear not, Washington fans! This may finally be your year.
Here are three reasons why:
Their Defense is Tremendous
Defense wins championships, and the Capitals boast their best stop-unit yet.
Washington allowed a downright miserly 182 goals this season, the fewest goals the Capitals have ever allowed in an 82-game campaign.
Goaltender Braden Holtby led the NHL in shutouts with nine and also ranked in the top five of the league in wins, goals-against average and save percentage. Behind him was youngster Philipp Grubauer, who recorded three shutouts of his own. Together, the Caps goaltending duo tied for the NHL lead in save percentage (.922).
In Washington’s past playoff failures, the defense wasn’t nearly this good (last year, the Caps were second in the NHL in goals against, but allowed 11 more goals than this season.) Throughout the Alex Ovechkin era, the Capitals relied more heavily on offence and routinely ranked near the middle of the pack defensively (though they were sixth in team goals-against average in 2014-15 and fourth in 2010-11).
And Washington’s season-long defensive numbers may not even accurately reflect the strength of their blue line. The Capitals significantly bolstered their corps of defensemen with the acquisition of Kevin Shattenkirk shortly before the NHL trade deadline in late February.
They No Longer Rely Heavily on Ovechkin
Much of Washington’s recent post-season struggles has been tied to Ovechkin.
During the regular season, the six-time winner of the Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy (annually awarded to the top regular-season goal scorer in the league) has averaged 1.12 points and 0.60 goals per game.
That production has dropped severely in playoff competition, where Ovechkin has put up 0.48 goals and 0.98 points per outing.
Since the 2008-09 playoffs, when Ovie recorded 11 goals and 10 assists in 14 games, those numbers are even more damning. The Russian sniper has scored just 26 goals and drawn 26 assists in his last 63 playoff games – an average of 0.83 points per contest.
But the good news for Washington is that this year’s team is nowhere near as reliant on Ovechkin as they’ve been in the past.
The Capitals offence is now led by Nicklas Backstrom, who paced Washington with 86 points – 17 more than Ovechkin put up. Nine more players cracked the double-digit plateau in goals, and a total of five Capitals had more than 50 points.
It’s telling that in what was arguably the worst offensive season of Ovechkin’s career (his 33 goals were his lowest ever in a full season, except for 2010-11 when he scored one less goal in three fewer games), the Capitals still ranked third in the league in goals for, averaging 3.2 goals per game.
“Alex Ovechkin doesn’t have to win the Conn Smythe Trophy for the Washington Capitals to win the Stanley Cup,” NBCSN analyst Keith Jones said earlier this month. “That’s probably the most refreshing thing for Alex Ovechkin. There are other players in that lineup. There are other stars. . . . The team around him is better.”
Washington’s Path to the Finals Appears Easy
The most encouraging news of all for Capitals fans might be the status of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Penguins have been the biggest thorn in the Capitals’ side all of these years, ending Washington’s season the last six times the clubs have met in the playoffs. No defeat was more gutting for the Capitals than last year, when Pittsburgh seemingly came out of nowhere to catch fire in the final weeks of the regular season, upset the Capitals 4-2 in the second round of the playoffs (when all four of the Pens’ wins came by one goal, including two overtime decisions) and ride that momentum to a Stanley Cup championship.
Pittsburgh looked like it might be the Capitals’ kryptonite yet again this season, especially following a wild 8-7 victory over Washington Jan. 16 when the Penguins overcame an early 3-0 deficit to snap the Caps’ nine-game winning streak.
But the Pens have been hit – and hit hard – by the injury bug of late, particularly with the loss of stud defenseman Kris Letang for the entire playoffs. Evgeni Malkin missed a few games at the end of the regular season and may not be completely healthy, and Pittsburgh netminder Matt Murray had to sit out the first game of the playoffs after injuring himself in warmups.
The rest of the competition in the East isn’t too daunting, either.
Washington gets to open up the playoffs against a Toronto Maple Leafs squad that features nine players without any previous playoff experience.
If the Caps get past Toronto as expected, they’ll either face the banged-up Penguins or a Blue Jackets team that has been pretty average since posting a 16-game winning streak from Nov. 29-Jan. 3. (The team that ended that streak, by the way? The Capitals, with an emphatic 5-0 win in Washington).
The NHL’s odd playoff format, where the second- and third-place finishers in each division play each other in the first round, ensures Washington would then face either Montreal, Boston, Ottawa or the Rangers in the conference final. The Capitals finished 15 points ahead of the Canadiens, 16 ahead of New York, and 20-plus points ahead of both the Bruins and Senators during the regular season.
Once the Capitals get to the final, the pressure of past playoff failures should be off them, and they’ll be armed with plenty of confidence.
At that point, it’s often a case of better team wins, and no team in the NHL was better this season than the Caps.