After a rather disappointing 2018-19 campaign where they were bounced in seven games to an inexperienced Carolina Hurricanes team in the first round of the playoffs, the Washington Capitals are back for some classic redemption.
A Slight Championship Hangover
In June 2018, the Caps ended their 44-year drought without a Stanley Cup championship. For years, Washington was usually the punchline for some playoff choking joke, but that all ended when they defeated the Vegas Golden Knights in five games during the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.
Unfortunately, the jokes ceased for just a brief period as they started up again this past April after another early post-season exit. As mentioned earlier, the Capitals lost to a talented, but inexperienced hockey club in the Hurricanes during the first round of the 2019 Playoffs. While the Capitals did win the Metropolitan Division with a record of 48-26-8 and 104 points, not many folks were totally sold on them defending their title. Those people were right to feel that way as the Caps squandered both a 2-0 and 3-2 series lead to the Canes.
Goaltending, lack of defense and scoring from key players became a bit of an issue down the stretch in that series versus Carolina and that ultimately led to Washington’s demise. Game 7 was the perfect example to sum up the defense and goaltending in a nutshell. The Capitals’ defense collapsed, allowing the Hurricanes to score a pair of goals in a matter of five minutes or so to erase a 3-1 Washington lead. Eventually, the Hurricanes finished the job off in double OT to send the Caps home packing. There was a lot of criticism about exactly what went wrong with the Capitals during their brief playoff tenure this past Spring. Evgeny Kuznetsov was practically non-existent, scoring only one goal the entire series. To be honest, it just did not look like Washington was really ready for the playoffs, even throughout the season. I did not feel the same energy the Capitals exuded in the regular season as they did in the years prior to when they won the Stanley Cup.
The Tide Has Turned
This cannot be said about the 2019-20 team. They look like their old selves, putting up big offensive numbers and gaining separation from the pack. Washington is one of, if not, the hottest team in the NHL right now as they have won 8 of their last 10 games played. Furthermore, Washington is currently on a nine-point game streak as well. They are now gaining moment in a competitive Metropolitan Division which also consists of teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Hurricanes, and New York Islanders. Their most recent win came this past Sunday evening as they defeated the Calgary Flames 4-2 at Capital One Arena. Washington is looking more and more like a championship contender from a couple of years ago when they won it all in June 2018.
At this very moment, the Capitals are tied for first in the NHL with 25 points. Their scoring is on fire as they have scored the most goals up to this point with 63. One gripe I have with them is their goals against stat, which ranks in the bottom-10 at 49. The Caps will need to tighten up on defense, especially when more critical games begin to come into play.
While the defense may be an issue, I have faith that head coach Todd Reirden will get his troops to tighten up and support his star goalie Braden Holtby out more. Holtby’s save percentage is currently down at 0.895, along with a rather hefty goals against average of 3.30. Some of this can be attributed to the lack of support he is getting, but it also falls on him too. Both Holtby and his defensive mates will need to buckle down if they want to solidify any remaining holes for this Caps squad.
I have a lot of confidence with this crew, especially with Alex Ovechkin leading the charge and defenseman John Carlson having an incredibly productive start to his season with 7 goals and 16 assists in 16 games played. If the rest of Washington’s defense can follow Carlson’s lead, maybe not in the same way as his point production, but in his strong defensive presence at the blue line, then this team is a strong favorite to win it all again. Keep an eye out for the Capitals this season. They are back and looking more dangerous than ever. Maybe even more so than they did when they had won it all during that magical 2018 run.