For fans who vividly remember the incredible dominance of the 2009-10 Capitals, this season seems all too familiar.
The Capitals of six years sprinted to the Presidents’ Trophy with a league-high 121 points, eight more than any other team in the NHL, and 38 points more than the second-place Atlanta Thrashers in the Southeast Division.
The 2015-16 Capitals are on pace for 130 points, two short of the NHL record set by the 1976-77 Canadiens, and have opened up a five-point lead on the Chicago Blackhawks and an 18-point lead on the second-place New York Rangers in the Atlantic Division.
Led by a dynamic trio of Alex Ovechkin (50 goals), Nicklas Backstrom (33 goals) and Alex Semin (40 goals), the 2009-10 Caps finished first in the NHL in goals per game (3.82) and power play percentage (25.2 percent).
This year’s Capitals also lead the NHL in goals per game (3.33) and power-play percentage (27.1 percent). Ovechkin is on pace for 50 goals, Backstrom is set to hit 28 and right wing T.J. Oshie is on pace for 27.
The 2009-10 Caps won a franchise-record 13 straight home games, a mark the 2015-16 Caps can match with a win Friday night at home against the Anaheim Ducks, who are coached by the same man who guided that 2009-10 team, Bruce Boudreau.
But to those who remember the 2009-10 Capitals, who were eliminated by Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens in seven games in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, there is a distinct difference this season.
“This team just seems more robotic,” said left wing Brooks Laich, who recorded 25 goals and 59 points for the 2009-10 Caps.
“That team was a little bit Jekyll and Hyde sometimes. We could score five goals, but we could also give up five. This team is more controlled in terms of a more consistent style of play.
“Over 60 minutes we make it very difficult for teams to hang with us for the full 60. It might be tight after one, it might be tight after two, but usually we can feel the ice tilting a little bit and we’re going to find our breaks. We have great goaltending, great special teams and we’re hard to play against. We’re harder to beat, I think.”
The reason is team defense. The 2009-10 Capitals ranked 15th in the NHL in goals against per game (2.77) and 25th on the penalty kill (78.8 percent). This year’s Caps rank first in the NHL in goals-against per game (2.15) and fourth on the penalty kill (84.9 percent).
“The way we’re winning games is different,” said Caps defenseman Karl Alzner, who played 21 games as a rookie on that 2009-10 team. “We won a lot of high-scoring games that year and we didn’t have to grind out as many as we have this year.
“The confidence is there and we feel good about the way we do win games. A lot of it comes from the coaches; a lot of it comes from the veterans in this room.”
Unlike their predecessors, this year’s Capitals have found a way to shut the door on teams after building a lead. They are 17-0-0 when leading after one period, 26-0-1 when leading after two, and 13-2-3 in one-goal games. They are also 30-8 in games decided in regulation.
“I think with Barry it’s defense first,” said former NHL coach Craig Berube, now scouting for Team Canada. “He makes everybody accountable defensively. They don’t give you a lot of room out there. They’ve got five guys on the ice willing to play defense and that’s the biggest difference I see.
“I think last year we all saw how they can play in the playoffs and that’s the way you’ve got to win games. How many 2-1 games did Chicago win last year? It takes a lot of grinding, hard work, blocking shots, all the dirty stuff. They’re still scoring lots of goals and their power play is still good, but they’re playing way better defensively.
“And (Braden) Holtby’s a top goalie. What I like about him is he can let in a bad goal and it doesn’t bother him.”
Holtby, who is on pace to establish an NHL record with 53 wins, credits Trotz for the Caps’ businesslike approach to the regular season and his long-range focus on what lies ahead.
“Standings don’t mean much for us,” Holtby said. “We want to just keep getting better as a group. We go into each game with a game plan and we try to execute it and we’ll see where we end up.
“Our experience in here helps. Guys have been in positions where they’ve been at the top of the standings in the regular season. It helps that this is nothing new. I think in the past maybe it wasn’t handled correctly.
“We’re in a good place right now but our goal isn’t to win the regular season, it’s to win the Stanley Cup.”
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