Even Mother Nature Doesn’t Scare the Capitals

Karl Alzner has quietly become one of the league's top defensemen for the Capitals (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)
Karl Alzner has quietly become one of the league’s top defensemen for the Capitals (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

So far this season nothing has been able to derail the red-hot Washington Capitals – not opposing teams, not suspensions and not injuries to key players. But next up on the team’s schedule is Mother Nature. Will the Blizzard of 2016 be able to slow the Caps down? The weather certainly seems to have the early edge, causing two games this weekend to be postponed, but will there be any longterm effects?

The Caps have lost just 11 times this season, including their two overtime setbacks and one shootout loss. Only once have they lost consecutive games, and they’ve managed to exact revenge on nine of the 11 opponents who have beaten them. Washington’s first loss of the season spurred a five-game winning streak. The Caps responded to another setback with 10 wins in their next 12 contests. Another loss was followed by six straight victories and yet another by nine straight.

Washington has only dropped back-to-back contests once, on Dec. 31 and Jan. 2 to Carolina and Columbus, but followed those losses with five consecutive victories. After the Caps’ most recent setback, a 4-1 loss to Buffalo Jan. 16, they responded by exploding for 11 total goals against the Rangers and Blue Jackets in consecutive wins.

Their consistent resilience and ability to bounce back from defeats despite playing for long stretches without their top defensive pairing and third-line center Jay Beagle because of injuries – and other players because of suspensions and various bumps and bruises – has allowed them to open up a 14-point lead over their closest Eastern Conference foe and a five-point margin over second-place Chicago (despite having five games in hand) in the overall league standings.

Only Dallas and San Jose have the upper hand on the NHL-leading Caps this year, each having beaten Washington in the teams’ only meetings, but those rematches loom Feb. 13 and March 12, respectively. It now appears as though the Capitals may be up against their toughest opponent to date, however, as the Blizzard of 2016 has caused the postponement of this weekend’s games against Anaheim and Pittsburgh. Makeup dates have yet to be announced.

With the two postponements Washington will have a season-high six days off before its next game Wednesday at Philadelphia. That contest is followed by the All-Star break, which means that the Caps will have played just once in just 13 days when they host Florida Feb. 2.

Washington’s worst outing of the season, a 5-0 home loss to San Jose Oct. 13, came after the Caps had played just one game in an eight-day span overlapping the preseason finale and the start of the regular season.   They also struggled mightily in a 3-1 loss against Pittsburgh Oct. 28 after a four-day break and turned in another sub-par effort in a 3-2 loss to Dallas in just their second game in a six-day span. Other losses to the Rangers and Red Wings followed two-day breaks.

Capitals Just Want to Push Onward and Upward

Capitals netminder Braden Holtby thrives on a high workload (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Capitals netminder Braden Holtby thrives on a high workload (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For a team that has been bitten by the injury bug lately you would think that maybe a long break and some time to rest heading into the stretch run would be greeted with enthusiasm. This Caps team, however, just keeps rolling along and seems to prefer the routine of playing every other day.

The team is second in the NHL in goals scored, has allowed the fewest goals, owns the top power play and ranks fourth in penalty killing. And goaltender Braden Holtby, who is being mentioned as both a Vezina and Hart Candidate, leads all goaltenders in wins and ranks among the top five in save percentage and goals-against average. A long stretch without games can affect the rhythm of a power play, or mess up the timing of the forward lines or hurt a netminder like Holtby who thrives on playing frequently.

On the flip side, an extended break should allow top-pairing defenseman John Carlson, who has missed 12 games with a lower-body injury, a chance to return to action at full strength without missing many more contests. Carlson skated with the team in practice Thursday and was doubtful for the weekend.

It seems likely the team would avoid playing him against the Flyers so that he is guaranteed to be 100 percent after the All-Star break. Getting a player back who was being mentioned as a Norris Trophy candidate early in the year certainly will not hurt what already has been the league’s best defense statistically.

“I would say he’s more doubtful than probable {for the weekend},” head coach Barry Trotz said of Carlson before the big storm hit. “We’ll see how he is tomorrow. It’s a good step; he was on the ice with us for the first time.”

Added Carlson: “The team has been playing really well. It would be tough for someone in my position waiting to get better if things weren’t going our way, but things are going great and they don’t need me out there. So I’ll just do what I can and try my hardest to get out there as quick as I can. Just being able to practice with the guys is awesome. It feels a little different when you are on the outside and skating at different times and when they are at meetings you are just doing different things.”

It remains to be seen whether this break will slow the Capitals’ torrid and potentially record-breaking pace or if it will be just what the doctor ordered heading into the grind of the final 36 games. As the schedule currently lines up, Washington is set to play out the string with just five two-day breaks between games after the All-Star Game. Now they will have to squeeze in a couple more contests, which will probably cut into two of those two-day breaks and actually be preferred.

The weather also has put on hold, but not squashed, Washington’s attempt to win a franchise-record 13th consecutive game on home ice. That will have to wait until the Feb. 2 game against the Panthers. In addition, Karl Alzner will set the franchise consecutive-games mark at 423, surpassing Bobby Carpenter, assuming that he suits up at Philly Wednesday.

“It’s probably the only franchise record I’d have a shot at,” Alzner said. “That’s kind of neat for me. If I never really accomplish anything else in my career, at least I have this to fall back on.”

Alzner, who is considered to be part of the team’s second defensive pairing with Matt Niskanen, would surely be a No.1 or 2 blue liner on most teams. He’s quietly become one of the most dependable defensemen in the NHL, ranking third in the league in blocked shots with 122 and 15th in plus-minus at plus-15 while playing well over 20 minutes a game. He’s also on pace for a career offensive year with 3-11-14 through 46 contests.

“He’s a big, thick guy,” Trotz said. “Probably some genetics there and good luck. It is pretty impressive, especially with what is demanded of defensemen, not only on our team, but also throughout the league. I think he’s starting to get appreciated around the league. I know that other coaches have noticed it. With my involvement with the Hockey Canada group his name is popping up. That’s a good thing. He’s on the watch list, and that’s because of his play. People are recognizing how steady he is, how durable he is and that he really can play any game you want.”

Ms. Nature also hasn’t kept some of the Capitals’ characters, including team captain Alex Ovechkin, from being their fun-loving selves. Ovechkin was spotted Friday by a local television reporter while stocking up on gas before the storm got ugly. Then on Saturday some footage of him putting that gas to use also surfaced. Of course fan-favorite Tom Wilson also was out and about during the storm.

Much like they way they’ve taken on their opponents, the Washington Capitals don’t seem intimidated by Mother Nature. And while there may be some signs of rust for the Caps the first few games back after the All-Star break, ultimately the extra rest they will get – paired with getting to play the type of schedule they prefer over the final 2-1/2 months of the season – might end up proving to be very beneficial heading into what they hope will be a long and grueling postseason run.