Despite some prognosticators playing down the Washington Capitals’ chances of rebounding this year, the team is off to a great start. They currently sit on top of the Metropolitan Division 10 games through the season and show no sign that the first-round exit from the playoffs last season is having a detrimental effect on the team’s psyche or performance.
So, what explains the team’s resilience? There are a myriad of factors that make up a team’s productivity, especially this early in the season, but here are three major reasons the Capitals are off to a hot start.
Keeping Games Close
While a plus-five goal differential through 10 games may be surprising for a team sitting in first place in their division, the Capitals have shown a resiliency to come from behind and keep games close. Of the team’s four losses this season, two have come in overtime and one was a one-goal game.
Looking at the goalies, the tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Braden Holtby have a combined goals against average (GAA) of 3.10. Again, nothing stellar, but the team has shown that they can bounce back from deficits and the goaltenders are making saves in key situations late in games.
In way of illustration, in the first game of the season against the Stanley Cup champions, St. Louis Blues, the team rallied from a two-goal deficit to win in overtime 3-2. Two days and a flight to New York later, Samsonov kept a clean sheet throughout the third period in their win against the New York Islanders. On Oct. 16, the team rallied again from a two-goal deficit against the Toronto Maple Leafs with four straight goals to win 4-3.
While it is too early in the season to anoint the Capitals as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference, they are exhibiting the qualities a team needs to get them through tough, late-season games and into the playoffs.
Special Teams, Special Results
With the wide-scale parity in the NHL right now, the margin of error can, and often is, the success rate of the team’s special teams units. If you are going to thrive, you have to ensure your power play and penalty kill are performing at high rates.
Ten games into the 2019-20 season, the Capitals power play is revving along quite nicely. To date, the team has had 37 power play opportunities and scored on 10 of them for an impressive 27.03 percent success rate. To reinforce the point, the team has scored a power play goal in all six of their wins this seasons. A statistic that will make any special teams coach happy.
On the flip side of the coin, while the coaching staff may not be happy that the team has only two fewer penalty kills than power play opportunities thus far this season, they will be happy with how the penalty kill unit is performing.
The Capitals have provided the opposition with 35 power play chances this season. Of those opportunities, the team has only given up 5 goals against for a sparkling 85.71 percent kill rate, almost 6 full percentage points better than the league average, all while adding two short-handed goals.
If you want to win big games in crucial spots, your special teams have to show up. To date, the Capitals have been doing just that.
The Big Guns Are Delivering
If the Capitals want to return the Stanley Cup back to the nation’s capital, it will take every member of the team pulling in the right direction. But, make no mistake about it, this team is built to have its big guns lead the way. This season, those leaders are not disappointing.
John Carlson, summoning his best Bobby Orr impression, is leading the NHL in both points (18) and assists (15) through 10 games as a defenseman. Alex Ovechkin is averaging a point a game with 10 points and T.J. Oshie isn’t far behind him with 9 points. Nicklas Backstrom is having a great start with 8 points and Lars Eller has 3 goals and four assists thus far.
In what is sure to be a relief for many Capitals fans, Evgeny Kuznetsov isn’t showing any ill signs of his three-game suspension or from the intense attention for his admitted banned-substance abuse as he is scoring on a point-a-game pace with 7 points, as well.
The Capitals are off to a solid start, but the next four-game stretch will be important to watch as they begin a swing through Canada that will take them from Calgary to Edmonton to Vancouver, ending with a cross-country trek to Toronto to take on the Maple Leafs.
If they can maintain the success they have had by keeping games competitive, taking advantage of special teams opportunities and having their stars lead the way, they will be in good shape heading into November.
Reporting on Hockey at the speed of write. I am a former U.S. Men’s National Ball Hockey Team player, current G.M. of the Women’s National Ball Hockey Program and Head Coach of the First Ladies Hockey Club based in Washington, D.C.