Capitals Hitting Stride in Tight Metro Division Race

The Washington Capitals experienced a bit of a rocky start to the 2017-18 campaign, but that all seems to be behind them now as they’ve started to string together wins. And although this team isn’t the same one that has dominated the NHL for the last two seasons, they are starting to find their form and develop a winning culture.

Two points away from taking the Metropolitan Division lead that they have defended for the last two years, Washington is starting to find their footing, and the players are more optimistic heading into the thick of the regular season prior to the All-Star break.

“We’re on a nice little run right now,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “We’ve played much better, so things are good. Things at the rink are always good when you’re winning and not quite as much fun if you’re not playing well.”

Washington Capitals
The Capitals have won their last four games and are two points away from taking the Metropolitan Division lead. (Photo Credit: Troy Parla)

The Capitals have won four straight games, as well as eight of their last 10, good for the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference. Not only have they been finding ways to string goals together and win hockey games, but they have no trouble matching up well with their opponents, which, according to captain Alex Ovechkin, makes them a stronger team.

“I think we find a way to play against very good teams, and it’s important for our mentality,” Ovechkin said.

Capital Gains with a New-Look Team

With Washington losing a handful of big-name players over the summer, the front office and the coaching staff called upon the prospects and the up-and-coming NHLers already in the system to step up to the plate. With a younger, new-look team, which features two rookie blueliners in Christian Djoos and many Hershey Bears forwards transitioning to full-time NHL roles, this particular Capitals team is distinct from ones that have preceded it in the past. Goaltender Braden Holtby has seen that difference.

“It feels different in some ways,” Braden Holtby said. “I think we haven’t been quite as dominant as we have in years past. I think we still have some work to do to get to that point.”

But even now, Holtby said he sees a lot of strengths from the Capitals and believes they can push themselves even further to keep the trend moving upward.

“We’ve had some games where we’ve played really well and created wins,” Holtby said. “We are making progress that way and we’re finding ways to win games. That’s a good sign of character and confidence, it’s just we got to keep pushing forward if we want this to continue.”

Christian Djoos Capitals
With rookies like Christian Djoos taking on more defensive responsibility, this Capitals team sets itself apart from last season’s team that won the Presidents’ Trophy. (Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports)

Niskanen agreed with Holtby, saying that he has seen a lot more offense and drive, as well as an overall elevated performance from everyone, including star players and secondary scorers.

“We’re scoring a little bit more. I think we’re playing harder in a few areas than we were earlier in the year,” Niskanen said. “We’re a little bit harder around the boards and we’re harder at both nets. It’s given us a better chance, and I think our PK’s improved too.”

What’s Working for Washington

The Capitals have been seeing improvement across the board, but there are certain factors that play into the team’s recent success. Though some are skeptical to say that having “home ice advantage,” truly does benefit a team, Washington has been dominant of late at Capital One Arena; they’ve won four straight, as well five of their last six games, on home ice.

Niskanen said that at times, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference in regards to where the team plays, but he has noticed that Washington has been playing well on home ice. Still, it shouldn’t be difficult translating that success to the road.

“We’ve been good at home lately, so maybe it’s real for this team,” Niskanen said of having home-ice advantage. “I can’t pinpoint why that is, besides familiarity, but I don’t think anything tactically changes on the road. Really the only tangible difference is you can’t control the matchups.”

The team’s big-name players, including, most notably, Ovechkin, are also major parts of the Capitals’ success. The 32-year-old leads the NHL with 21 goals and has been surging of late. Not only does he have points in seven of his last eight games, he has scored eight goals over that span, scoring in five of his last six games.

Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals
Ovechkin’s league-leading 21 goals, as well as success on home ice and cohesiveness, have helped the Capitals climb up the NHL standings. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

“He probably has the best goal-scorer shot of all time. He’s blessed with that ability,” Holtby said of Ovechkin. “But I think this year, he’s using his teammates a bit more, creating a bit more, not just waiting for it to come to him… for him to be effective on our team, that’s where we need him to be, atop the league in goals, that’s his game.”

Overall, the team is starting to find its chemistry and is becoming a “tight-knit” group, according to forward Chandler Stephenson, who attributes the team’s recent success to his teammates.

“Just the group of guys we have,” Stephenson said. “Great group of guys, everybody gets along. Everybody wants to fight for each other and has everybody’s backs.”