The Washington Capitals start their 2016-17 campaign tonight against their favorite rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Last season was – once again – an ‘almost’ and ‘what if’ term. There were, obviously, some outstanding moments, including the Herculean performance of Braden Holtby in goal as he tied Martin Brodeur’s record for most wins in a single season (48). Also of note was the superb addition to the team of T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams – both of whom proved that they were each worth their salt.
The Capitals have all the elements for a lengthy postseason run – even into June – and here’s why:
This is an impressive presumptive Capitals line combination for their season opener against the Penguins:
- Alex Ovechkin – Evgeny Kuznetsov – T.J. Oshie
- Marcus Johansson – Nicklas Backstrom – Andre Burakovsky
- Zach Sanford – Lars Eller – Justin Williams
- Daniel Winnik – Jay Beagle – Tom Wilson
The first line is one that worked well last season. Ovechkin and Kuznetsov had a combined points total of 148, while Oshie added a further 51 points. Ovechkin is good enough to better his 50-goal output from last year – possibly even pushing closer to 70 goals. A bold statement, but he’s at the peak of his career. The fact that Backstrom is likely to spend at least the first part of the season as center on the second line illustrates how good that first line is. The top-two lines are up there with the best in the NHL.The third and fourth lines are bound to change in the coming weeks and months. Williams and Beagle should shine throughout the season – as they did last season – while rookie Sanford will want to impress right out of the gate, because offseason-acquisition Brett Connolly will be waiting in the wings. Don’t expect a household-name-making performance like the Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews, but Sanford – who scored 13 goals and had 26 assists over 41 games for Boston College last year – is a rookie to watch.
With lines like these (comprised of stealth, an eager rookie and arguably the best player in the world), what could go wrong? Well, we are talking about the Cardiac Caps here, so plenty.
In Braden Holtby, the Capitals have the netminder they’ve yearned for since the legendary Olaf Kolzig left Washington. Vezina Trophy winner Holtby has the best playoff save percentage in NHL history – and he’s the best goalie in the league (keep comments below rated PG-13, please).
Holtby followed up his 2014-15 regular-season stats of a 2.22 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage last season. Talk about consistency. With Philipp Grubauer as a worthy backup, the Caps are (finally) feeling comfortable between the pipes.
The Capitals have always lacked a goalie who could go the distance and win a Cup … until now. Holtby, not Ovechkin, is the key to the Capitals lifting the silverware in June.
The Power-Play Unit
In 2014-15, the Capitals finished first in power-play conversions with a 25.3 percent success rate. They followed that up with a disappointing (by their standards) fifth place finish last term in the same category with 21.9 percent. They’re more than capable of regaining the first-place power-play spot by April.
The first power-play unit will feature Johansson, Backstrom, Oshie and Ovechkin, with John Carlson as the defenseman. The second unit will bring on Burakovsky, Kuznetsov and Williams. All of this should make any opponent nervous; give the Caps a power play in 2016-17 and expect to lose games. Ovechkin’s one-timer from the wing is legendary and regularly gets by some equally legendary goalies, while Carlson is a goal-scoring D-man with a slapshot worthy of the ‘Great 8′ himself.
Factor in a solid defensive outfit, and one of the best head coaches in the NHL, this should be the Capitals’ best opportunity to be knocking on Lord Stanley’s door.