Following their win Saturday over the New Jersey Devils, the Capitals sit alone atop the East Division with 26 points. They have played more games than both Boston and Philadelphia so this may change, but for now, they sit in first. That is not where many would have expected them to be even as recently as Tuesday when the team dropped its fourth game out of five to the Pittsburgh Penguins. But with a 5-1-1 record in their last seven games, the Capitals now seem to be hitting their stride under head coach Peter Laviolette.
"I think we've finally gotten the feeling of how good we can be," Lars Eller said.
Despite being just 20 games old, we have already seen a season's worth of storylines from this team. From losing four key players to the NHL's COVID protocol list to the litany of injuries to the emergence of surprising heroes like Vitek Vanecek and Conor Sheary, underlying all of it was the sense that we still had not yet seen this team at its best. There was another gear there they had yet to tap into.
"I think that there was a lot that we went through in a real short training camp with no exhibition games, a new coach, a new system and everyone figuring out the seats on the bus and how we're going to move forward," Laviolette said. "And there is thinking that goes with that. We were dealt quite a few injuries and the Covid spell there for a little bit, and there were just a lot of pieces in and out of the lineup for extended periods of time."
With so many players out the first 10 games, there was little to glean from their 6-1-3 record. They then went on to lose four straight, rebounded with two of their better wins of the season, then suffered two lackluster day games to bring them back down to Earth. But, over the course of the past seven games, the team is finally starting to look and play like the contender they felt they could be coming into the season.
Saturday's 5-2 win over New Jersey on Saturday was not a perfect game. Washington allowed the Devils back in despite taking a 3-0 lead, but overall there were far more positives to take from this game including the dramatic improvement we have seen even over the course of the past week.
Saturday's matchup was a day game against a fast team, two factors that just a week ago would have put Washington at a disadvantage. Instead, it was the Caps who had a jump to their step early on, scoring three goals in the first period before clamping down defensively.
"Today we finally came out with a really good start, we were on our toes, all four lines were going," Eller said. "I'm encouraged by what I've seen here lately."
Now 20 games in, we can see the type of style Laviolette wants his team to play. The Caps play a heavy, physical style of game, with man on man in the defensive zone. But they also look for quick breakouts with the defense joining the rush. Offensively there is more of a focus on getting bodies in front of the net. Instead of looking for the pretty play, something this team has been guilty of in the past, there is more of an emphasis on kicking the puck out for shots from the blue line with traffic in front to generate screens, deflections and rebounds.
"We still have a lot to learn, a lot to clean up and a lot we can improve on, I think, is the main thing," John Carlson said. "I think we’re confident in our team, but we’ve got a long ways to go.”
There is always an adjustment period that comes with hiring a new coach, but this year was made more difficult by a shortened training camp and no preseason. Now, however, Washington seems to have found a rhythm. This is no longer Todd Reirden's team adjusting to Laviolette's system, this Laviolette's team reacting to their system.
"I think it has to do with less reacting and more anticipating," Garnet Hathaway said. "Once guys are getting comfortable with the system you can see it. When guys aren't wasting time or energy or thinking too much, that's when we anticipate the play and then you see that work ethic take over in a battle, beating guys to the puck. I think that's what creates our offense a lot too."
The result is a 5-1-1 record in the past seven games and first place in the division despite Alex Ovechkin having only one goal in his past eight games, Evgeny Kuznetsov with only six total points and the team's projected starting goalie with only two starts this season.
Said Laviolette, "There's an identity that we're picking up on a little bit and at times it shows."