WASHINGTON — You might not have noticed and it is hard to blame you.
The Nationals just had an October for the ages, winning D.C.’s first World Series in 95 years. The Redskins are a soap opera. The Trent Williams saga is sad and embarrassing. The Mystics won their first championship in October, a goofy, lovable team with the best basketball player on the planet leading the way.
The team that started this era of sports good feeling in Washington flew totally under the radar. And that’s fine. The Capitals are exactly where they want to be: In the mix for the Stanley Cup again.
There’s no other way to look at it. A rough October schedule, with nine road games and 10 against teams that made the Stanley Cup playoffs last season, proved no problem. The momentum has carried into November.
Heading into Saturday’s home game against the Vegas Golden Knights, a rematch of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, the Capitals have the best record in the NHL. Let that sink in. They are 12-2-3. They are eight points ahead of Pittsburgh and Carolina and nine ahead of Philadelphia.
The New York Islanders had to go unbeaten in 10 games to even keep pace and they are still four points back of Washington. This start could not have gone better. Points are banked. The top players are all mostly rolling. The consensus was age might catch up to the Capitals. Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom are all over 30 now and John Carlson will join them in January.
Yet Ovechkin has 13 goals in 17 games and is on pace for 63 goals. Carlson has gone bananas with 26 points. He is on pace to shatter the single-season points record for a Caps’ defenseman (Hockey Hall-of-Famer Larry Murphy has 81 in 1986-87). Oshie is on pace for 38 goals and 58 points.
Shooting percentages matter and Oshie won’t sustain 27.6%. Does it matter? The Capitals have already banked 68 goals as a team. That’s 2009-10 territory when Washington led the NHL with 313 goals, a legendary team. Since the 2004-05 lockout, only last year’s Lightning have done better (319).
Now things didn’t go well for either of those teams in the playoffs. We won’t talk about that. But Washington, at least, is in a different place now. It has that elusive Stanley Cup. A large chunk of this roster proved it could blend that skill with relentless two-way, physical play. The Capitals aren’t trying to prove anything anymore. The banner has been hung.
Tom Wilson, 26, and Jakub Vrana, 23, needed to take a leap as the younger players in the top six just to take the pressure off the veterans. They’ve done it. Wilson hadn’t yet played a game at this time last season thanks to a long suspension. He has seven goals and seven assists already, including the OT winner at Florida on Thursday.
Vrana is at nine goals and five assists. Both players are on pace to set career highs in all categories. Wilson had 40 points (22 goals, 18 assists) and Vrana had 47 points (24 goals, 23 assists) last season. Shooting percentages will come down (19.4 for Wilson and 18.8 for Vrana), but the underlying stats are excellent.
Maybe you’d like to see Evgeny Kuznetsov (14 points) and Nicklas Backstrom (13 points) catch fire. But Kuznetsov has settled in after missing three games for an NHL-mandated suspension. If both players approach 70 points, that’s fine. Backstrom is off that pace for now. History says he’ll be fine.
You can nit pick. Braden Holtby’s numbers improved in goal as October flipped to November. But that .895 save percentage needs to keep rising and rookie Samsonov (.915) has been solid, but he’s also played six NHL games. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The blueline remains a work-in-progress. Carlson has been productive, his partners not so much. Michal Kempny is trying to return from hamstring surgery and didn’t have much of a training camp. Let’s give him a pass until he has a few weeks to work his way back into form. He does have three goals and nine assists in nine games.
Nick Jensen is the one concern at 45.9 shots-for percentage on the ice. Radko Gudas (48.7) and Dmitry Orlov (49.5) are still working on their chemistry so that bears watching. Jonas Siegenthaler (52.4) began the year with Carlson and has slid down to the third pair, but he’s making the most of it. He’s a shot-blocking machine. Let’s see if this group can string together a few weeks of good health now that Kempny is back.
Otherwise, the Capitals have done fine on special teams. Their 26.8 percent on the power play is a little high, but the goal was to become less predictable, still use their strengths and get back into the NHL’s top 10. Mission accomplished. The penalty kill was an area they needed to upgrade. So far, so good at 85.7%, which ranks eighth in the league.
With seven games left before Thanksgiving – always a good early benchmark which comes 24 games into the season – the Capitals are in position to force everyone else in the Metropolitan Division to chase them as they go for a fifth straight division title. They have remained relatively healthy save for forward Richard Panik, who could return Monday. There’s a long way to go, but it’s a good place to be.
MORE CAPITALS NEWS: