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Holtby: 'Our goal isn't to win the regular season'

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Holtby: 'Our goal isn't to win the regular season'

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.

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“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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Capitals Extra Podcast: Trade deadline story time with Alan May

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NBC Sports Washington

Capitals Extra Podcast: Trade deadline story time with Alan May

Alan May knows a thing or two about the trade deadline.

Over the course of his NHL career, May was traded five total times, four at the trade deadline. He sits down with Rob Carlin on a special edition of the Capitals Extra Podcast to tell stories from his playing days about what it was like getting traded.

This one's a can't miss for hockey fans. You can listen to the episode here on the Capitals Extra page or with the player below.

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NHL Awards tracker: Where would the Caps' offense be without Ovechkin?

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USA TODAY Sports

NHL Awards tracker: Where would the Caps' offense be without Ovechkin?

The Hart Trophy is given to the player judged to be the most valuable to their team. With the Caps currently struggling in almost every aspect of the game, consider this: Just where would they be without Alex Ovechkin?

Washington ranks 10th in the NHL in goals per game with 3.05. Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals with 36. He has scored an incredible 19-percent of his team's goals. No one on the Caps is within 20 goals of the Caps' captain.

That's not a typo. Evgeny Kuznetsov ranks second on the team with 16 goals. No other team in the league has a larger separation between its top two scorers. In fact, only three teams have a difference that's in the double digits: Vancouver (11), San Jose (10) and New Jersey (10).

Ovechkin is almost singlehandedly propping up Washington as a top-ten offense. If you think about just where this offense would be without him, there's a pretty strong case to be made that Ovechkin is as valuable to his team this season as any other player in the league.

SEE THIS WEEK'S 2018 NHL AWARDS TRACKER HERE

Here are the Caps' hopefuls for awards this season:

John Carlson

In contention for: Norris

Carlson is fifth among all defensemen with 45 points, but his case goes beyond the numbers. With a blue line that has featured two rookies the majority of the season, an aging veteran in Brooks Orpik and that had to deal with an injury to Matt Niskanen, the Caps have asked a lot of Carlson this season and he has always been up to the task.

Alex Ovechkin

In contention for: Hart

Few players, if any, are as important to their team's offensive production and therefore its success than Ovechkin has been this season.

Check out who the top candidates are for the league's major individual awards in this week's 2018 NHL Awards Tracker!