The Capitals officially hit the halfway mark of their season with Saturday night’s remarkable 4-3 overtime victory over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, and what a first half it’s been.
Through 41 games, the Caps (31-7-3, 65 points) have elevated themselves from Stanley Cup contenders to Stanley Cup favorites. And if you listen closely inside the locker room, you’ll see why.
“We’re just trying to build that consistency every day,” said Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, who is riding an incredible 19-0-2 streak in his last 21 decisions.
“That comes from not looking at streaks or even standings so much. We’re just trying to take that team we’re playing that night and prepare as best we can for them to get two points. If you get those two points you move on to the next one.
“A lot of guys on this team have won Presidents’ Trophies or Stanley Cups, so I don’t think that aura (of leading the NHL standings) really matters to us anymore. I think we’re just focused on making ourselves the best playoff team possible and give ourselves the best chance come spring.”
There are several reasons Caps fans can feel excited about the second half of the season and here are just a few:
Ovi’s on a mission: With a pair of goals Saturday night, Alex Ovechkin sits one goal away from becoming the fifth-fastest NHL player to record 500 goals. Ovechkin, 30, has 499 goals in 800 games.
Four players have gotten to 500 goals in fewer than 800 games: Wayne Gretzky (575 games, age 25); Mario Lemieux (605 games, age 30); Mike Bossy (647 games, age 28); and Brett Hull (693 games, age 32).
Ovechkin sits in a three-way tie for second-place in the NHL with 24 goals, one behind Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn.
Braden Holt-beast: No one will argue that as well as the Caps have played in front of him, Holtby has been their most valuable player. He leads all NHL goalies in wins (27) and ranks third in goals-against average (1.93) and fourth in save percentage (.932).
To put Holtby’s first half into historical perspective, he is on pace for 54 wins, six more than the NHL record of 48 set by Martin Brodeur in 2006-07.
Team lockdown: It took a goal by Nicklas Backstrom with 5.7 seconds remaining in regulation to keep the streak alive, but the Capitals are an incredible 22-0-1 when leading after two periods. No one in the NHL is better.
Special special teams: The additions of T.J. Oshie (five power-play goals) and Justin Williams (three) have given the Caps’ power play a boost, forcing teams to play more honest against Ovechkin, who has eight goals on the man-advantage. As a result, the Caps rank second in the NHL on the power play at 25.4 percent.
The Caps are also among the NHL’s best on the penalty kill, where Brooks Laich, Jason Chimera, Williams and Oshie have picked up where Jay Beagle left off. The Caps rank sixth on the kill at 86.4 percent.
Goals for/against: In their second year under Barry Trotz the Caps understand time, place and score more than at any time in recent memory. They have outscored opponents 36-27 in first periods, 40-25 in second periods and 48-31 in third periods.
Their goal differential of plus-43 is 10 better than any other team in the NHL. They rank second in the NHL in goals per game (3.17) and tied for second in goals allowed per game (2.15).
Organizational depth: Few NHL teams could survive losing their top defensive pair without taking a hit in the standings. Thanks the emergence of Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov, the improved play of Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen, and the solid performances of Taylor Chorney and anyone the Caps have recalled from Hershey as an injury replacement, the Caps have gone 21-3-3 without Brooks Orpik and 5-1-1 without Orpik and John Carlson.
(According to Caps GM Brian MacLellan, Orpik and Carlson could be back skating at Kettler on Monday or Tuesday).
Fresher legs: Having a 16-point lead on the Rangers and Islanders has allowed the Caps to give Orpik and Carlson extra time to heal, but it’s also impacted the distribution of ice time under Barry Trotz.
“It gives you some flexibility, no question,” Trotz said. “For example, against the Islanders (Thursday night) we had all our lines going and I think Backy and all them had their lowest ice time of the year.”
Indeed, Backstrom, who averages 19:24 in ice time, saw 17:49 against the Isles. Ovechkin, who averages 20:33, saw 16:36; and Oshie, who averages 19:12, saw 16:54.
“ Yeah, I spread it out a little bit more,” Trotz said. “You’re probably more relaxed at taking someone out or putting someone in, knowing you’re not fighting to get in.
“Last year we were trying to get in for the longest time. There were four teams within four points. We never had any breathing room. This year we have breathing room but the one thing I like about this team is it’s not sitting on anything.
“We don’t even look at our record, honestly. If you went in there last week and asked how many games we won, no one knew. I didn’t even know. We don’t look back. We look forward to the next challenge.”
There are 41 more challenges to go for the Capitals, beginning with what could be an historic night tonight at Verizon Center.
But it’s what the Capitals do after this 82-game season that ultimately will define them.
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