The Washington Capitals take their 3-2 Stanley Cup first round series lead on the road Saturday, looking to beat the New York Islanders and move on to a Round 2 match-up with the New York Rangers. If the Capitals win today, it will be the last ever Islanders game played at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island – the team moves to a new home in Brooklyn for the 2015-16 season.
The arrival of head coach Barry Trotz in Washington has ushered in an era of hard-hitting lines, with every player stepping up their aggressiveness and passion. There is a synergy and energy now that was lacking in the last few seasons in D.C. In simple terms, there’s no underperforming player wearing a Caps jersey these days.
The Capitals have improved so much this season over last, it’s tricky to pick out five of their most improved players this term, but finding the man to top that list was easy. It’s goaltender Braden Holtby.
1. Capitals’ Most Improved: Braden Holtby
Holtby played an NHL-leading 73 games during the regular season. His save percentage clocked in at .923 and his GAA was 2.22. That’s compared to 2.85 goals against and a .915 save percentage last season. But, it’s not just about the stats. This is a career-changing year for 25-year-old.
Everybody knows that Stanley Cups are won by good goaltending, and Holtby has what it takes to win games. When he first started to get ice time with the Capitals, he looked slightly inconsistent, but with the help of Capitals goalie coach Mitch Korn, Holtby is now playing with a confidence and calmness that rubs off onto the rest of the team.
Holtby has the skill set to become a superstar goaltender, and he’s by far the most improved Capitals player in the 2014-15 season.
2. Marcus Johansson
Marcus Johansson is another Capital vastly improved this season over last. Over 80 games last season, Johansson scored just eight goals while recording a plus/minus rating of minus-21. Compare that with his 20 goals and plus-6 rating this season, and it’s clear that the young Swede is now showing the true potential that the hockey world knew he possessed.
His points total in the regular season (47) is a career high, and he’s not too shabby in the postseason either—netting a goal and assisting on two others in the first round series against the Islanders.
3. Alex Ovechkin
“The Great 8” is the most consistent player on any team in the NHL. That may sound obvious regarding a superstar and arguably the best player in the world, so what has improved? His plus/minus rating. Last season it was a career-low minus-35; this term he’s at plus-10. And, with an NHL-leading 53 goals in the regular season, Ovie won his fifth Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy.
The one thing Ovechkin has never won is the Stanley Cup. He plays on a team now that has the coaching staff and the depth to go the distance. Will this be his year? If it isn’t, it’s just a matter of time. The Capitals’ captain is at his best right now, and he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. And—he gets along with Trotz.
4. Karl Alzner
The Capitals’ defense is the big story this year. Acquiring Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen was a stroke of genius and a huge reason (along with Holtby) why the Capitals made the playoffs. Alzner is a big part of that new defense and has improved this term because he’s often paired with Niskanen. The two have synched well, as have the other defense combinations.
Alzner looks bigger and is hitting harder than seasons past, and he’s chalked up a career-high five goals in the regular season. He’s also performing well in the postseason, scoring two goals and an assist so far. Like a lot of his teammates, Alzner is on fire.
5. Nicklas Backstrom
Like Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom is one of the best players in the NHL. The two of them together, when they click, are goal-getters. And, they’ve clicked this season. Backstrom recorded 78 assists in the regular season, and most of them were passes to Ovechkin. He makes the list of most improved Capitals because of the way he carries the team. The quiet and humble Swede is the consummate team player, and when he’s firing on all cylinders, so does the team. He’s taking control of the current playoff series, playing hard, making hits, scoring goals and staying strong on the fore-check.
Ultimately, the hits are bigger this season, the shots are numerous, and the teamwork is inspiring. The Capitals have what it takes to go all the way to the final.
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Glynn Cosker is based in the Washington D.C. area. A professional writer and blogger, Glynn brings insightful news and information on all things related to the Washington Capitals for THW. Follow Glynn @DCPuckDrop