Matt Niskanen, Alex Ovechkin and Joel Ward. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
The Washington Capitals continue to sneak up the Eastern Conference seedings and appear built to make a sleeper playoff run. Here's why.
We completed our Stanley Cup power rankings for THN's Playoff Preview magazine a couple weeks ago, and we didn't devote much air time to the Washington Capitals at our table debates. We slotted the Caps 13th. Their hot-and-cold play wasn't blowing us away. Amid a pile of wins in February and March, they had letdowns against non-playoff teams Philadelphia (twice) and Dallas.
I tweeted March 3 that the Eastern Conference parity was incredible, and that I could see any of Tampa Bay, the New York Islanders, the New York Rangers, Montreal, Detroit, Boston and Pittsburgh reaching the Stanley Cup final. Apologies for including Pittsburgh in that group – yikes – but that's not the point. As a reader named Angelos asked: where was Washington? I had deliberately omitted them.
And that looks more like an oversight every day. The Caps have quietly usurped the Pens and Isles to grab the No. 2 seed in the Metropolitan division and look like a darn scary team to face in the post-season. Why?
It naturally starts with Alex Ovechkin and regular centerman Nicklas Backstrom. Ovie's 52-goal, 80-point effort looks identical to last year's but is something much more this time around. For one, he's done his damage in a 2014-15 season with an unprecedented lack of superstar scoring performances. No player will notch 90 points this season. Three have topped 40 goals. Just 14 have 30 goals. In fact, only 34 players have even half Ovechkin's goal total. And he's maintained his status as the world's deadliest sniper despite adjusting to defense-minded coach Barry Trotz. Wasn't Ovie supposed to score less and backcheck more?
To Trotz's credit, however, when we spoke in the summer, he made it clear he didn't want to clip No. 8's offensive wings.
"I want Alex to score," Trotz said at the time. "He scored 51 goals I believe last year. If he got 51, I'd love for him to get 52. But at the same time, not at the expense of the other side of the puck."
Trotz went on to explain he hoped to transform Ovie into a two-way presence the way Scotty Bowman did Steve Yzerman in Detroit. Selke Trophy material Ovie ain't, but he has evolved under Trotz. Ovechkin's Corsi Close among players with at least 200 minutes of action is 53.4, 148th in the NHL. His past three season ranks, working backward: 349th, 358th, 492nd. Part of the spike comes from Washington's improved team play in generating more shot attempts than the opposition, but the Cap are still just a good-not-great 13th this season in Corsi Close. Ovechkin's season rank in Corsi relative to his team (His number minus his team's number) is 87th, up from 148th last year.
It does appear Ovechkin is better at both ends of the ice under Trotz – or at least better at forcing play to the desired side of the rink. Ovechkin has been on for 33 goals for and 29 against in 5-on-5 close situations (games tied or within one goal in the first or second period or tied in the third) this season. Last year: 20 for, 31 against.
Having an all-round better first line is just one reason why teams should fear the Caps in the post-season. Another: supreme defensive depth. Will GM Brian McLellan one day regret signing Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen for 12 combined years of hockey at $67.5 million? Maybe. Probably. But not this season. There's no doubt that tandem has made Washington deeper and better. Niskanen, to no surprise, hasn't been the revelation he was with Pittsburgh in his contract year, but he hasn't had to be. John Carlson has taken another step forward as the team's top all-around defenseman. Karl Alzner has been a steady stay-at-home presence. And Mike Green has supplied offense in spurts as the team's No. 5 blueliner. Niskanen only had to be a B+ contributor in D.C., and he's done that.
McLellan told me before the season that Orpik, not Niskanen, was Washington's original free agency target, as the Caps needed a left-shot blueliner who could handle himself for 20 minutes a night with some sandpaper. Orpik has been a hitting, shot-blocking machine. He's 34 and likely to hit a wall at some point, but not yet. The Caps can almost rub shoulders with the Blues, Rangers and Blackhawks with their defensive depth.
Look at what Braden Holtby did Sunday in a crucial victory over the Detroit Red Wings. He's been sensational all-season under the tutelage of goalie wizard Mitch Korn. Before the all-star break: 39 starts, 22-9-8, 2.26 goals-against average, .921 save percentage, four shutouts. After the all-star break: 31 starts, 18-10-2, 2.20 GAA, .924 SP, four shutouts. You have to love that consistency. Holtby has done nothing to shake his team's confidence in him for the playoffs. It appears he'll be a strength, not a weak spot.
Another reason to like this Caps team in the playoffs: forward grit. Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, Tom Wilson, Brooks Laich, Michael Latta…they all play with a serious edge. This is a big, thick, heavy group, with Backstrom, surging rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov and Marcus Johansson supplying some finesse.
Do the Caps have enough elite players to join the top Cup contenders? Let's not go that far. But they sure have the makeup to win one or more series, depending on matchups. They'd be a strong pick to take down the Penguins in a Metropolitan semifinal clash and, if the playoffs started today, they'd have home ice and far more momentum than the New York Islanders.
The Caps are big, strong, deep, fast, steady in net, loaded on 'D' and armed with the NHL's top-ranked power play. They're a solid 26-15-5 since Jan. 1. And they're a playoff opponent no team should want to face.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin