Capitals Atop NHL as Ovechkin is an Early MVP Candidate

The Washington Capitals not only have gained control of the Metropolitan Division, but they also are tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the NHL lead in points (33). That, however, is not why they are currently the best team in the league. The Capitals have been able to adapt on defense and win in different ways, and their role players and rookies have stepped up while key skaters remain on the injured reserve list. Also, Alex Ovechkin is making a case for MVP.

Capitals Quietly Becoming Best Team in NHL

Let’s not overreact too much; it’s still very early in the season. Over the weekend, Washington passed two major tests, though, defeating the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes. Going into each game, both those teams led their respective divisions. Now, they both sit at second.

Alex Ovechkin Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

On Friday night, Ovechkin registered his 28th career hat trick as the Capitals fended off the Panthers 4-3. This was the second matchup of the season against Florida. Washington lost 5-4 in overtime on Nov. 4 in Fort Lauderdale. Sunday afternoon, the Capitals received their first look at the Carolina Hurricanes on the season. Washington won 4-2 in Raleigh, highlighted by John Carlson recording three points.

The wins put Washington on top of the league in points. Yes, both Florida and Carolina have played fewer games than the Capitals, but head-to-head matchups certainly prove something.    

Goaltending and Defense

Florida and Carolina have two of the most potent offenses in the league. Each team sits in the top 10 for total goals scored and goals scored per game. They also play good defense, both ranking in the top 10 for total goals against and goals against per game. So does Washington in all four categories with an average NHL rank of fourth — the best among the three. The Calgary Flames also have an average rank of fourth.

TeamPointsGoals ForGF/GPGoals AgainstGA/GP
Washington Capitals3378 (1st)3.55 (5th)52 (6th)2.36 (4th)
Toronto Maple Leafs3366 (9th)2.87 (17th)49 (3rd)2.13 (2nd)
Florida Panthers3177 (2nd)3.75 (3rd)54 (8th)2.57 (5th)
Carolina Hurricanes3166 (10th)3.30 (9th)43 (2nd)2.15 (3rd)
Edmonton Oilers3075 (4th)3.75 (2nd)59 (19th)2.95 (18th)
Calgary Flames2970 (7th)3.33 (8th)72 (1st)2.00 (1st)
Comparisons and Rankings of top NHL Teams

The goaltending and defense have turned things around. Regarding the former, it started with Ilya Samsonov’s back-to-back shutouts during the team’s west coast swing the week prior. The 24-year-old goaltender started in both games against Florida and Carolina, earning two more victories and bringing his season record to 9-0-1. Before the road trip, his save percentage was .902. Now, he ranks 10th in the NHL at .918.

Related: Capitals’ Goalie Competition Heats up After Samsonov’s Back-to-Back Shutouts

The penalty kill has also drastically improved for Washington. After their first meeting with the Panthers, the team ranked 23rd in the NHL at 75.9 percent. They now rank ninth at 86 percent. In addition, the Capitals currently lead the league in the fewest shots against per game at 27.3. The blue line’s offensive contributions were on display against Carolina as well; Carlson had three points and Dmitry Orlov netted the go-ahead goal late in the third period.

Ovechkin’s Early Case for the Hart

Out west, Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid are playing suburb for the Edmonton Oilers. They rank first (40) and third (36), respectively, in the NHL for points. Between them is Ovechkin at 37 points on the season. The similarity between the three players is that they make people around them better. For example, Washington’s rookie Aliaksei Protas was inserted onto Ovechkin’s line against the Hurricanes and recorded his first career goal.

Related: Capitals’ Evgeny Kuznetsov On Course For Career Year

The difference, at the moment at least, is Ovechkin is doing it with less support. Yes, the top line of the Capitals is arguably the best in the league. Evgeny Kuznetsov is fifth in the league in points (27) and Tom Wilson is 16th (22). On the other hand, when the roster is depleted as it is, especially when it comes to top-six talent, then opponents can concentrate on stopping the stars who are suited to skate. Ovechkin is second in the league in goals (19) behind Draisaitl — who is 10 years younger.

It has been well covered that Ovechkin, 36, has a chance to best Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal record of 894. The Great Eight entered the season with 730, and needed to average 33 goals over the next five seasons. He’s on pace for 71 in 2021-22.

That most likely won’t happen, but his seemingly ageless prowess is incredible and he’s surprisingly even more effective when all focus is on him. If he can sustain this level of play, he should take home his fourth Hart Trophy.    

The Capitals Are The Best For Now

Washington has earned a point in 19 of their first 22 games this season, including in 10 of their last 11. What is most astonishing is that the team is playing at a contender level without the services of Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and Anthony Mantha. Conor Sheary is dealing with an upper-body injury and Justin Schultz was added to injured reserve on Nov. 27.

The good news is that Backstrom did skate with his teammates earlier last week and Oshie is eligible to return.

Head coach Peter Laviolette has made some solid defensive adjustments and the role players and rookies have been stepping up for the team as they wait for their stars to return from injury. With Ovechkin’s MVP-level play, Washington is the best team in the NHL right now. Two questions remain, however. They will need to adjust again when Backstrom, Oshie, and Mantha all ease back onto the ice, and they must keep finding ways to maintain this level of play. The last full NHL season was back in 2018-19, so 82 games seems like a lot for any franchise at the moment. If the Capitals can continue to adapt, look for them to make a deep playoff run.