How Does the Capitals’ Hot Start Rank?

The Washington Capitals are off to one of their best starts to a season in some time, including their remarkable run to win the Stanley Cup in the 2017-18 campaign. While the team’s hot start in October has tempered any worry about missing the postseason amongst fans, a look at the team’s statistics over the past few seasons shows that the first month of the season hasn’t always been kind to the team.

The team’s impressive run in October has also been accompanied by some equally, if not historic, individual starts. The clearest example is, undoubtedly, John Carlson’s continued historic offensive output. In addition to being named one of the NHL’s three stars for the month, the defenseman currently sits third in NHL scoring, tied with Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers and only two points behind the overall NHL points lead.

So, what does this all mean for the rest of the Capitals’ season? No statistical extrapolation can provide absolute certainty as to how the season will ultimately play out, but a look at the numbers may provide some insight as to what to expect from this team.

A Look at the Numbers

First off, what do the numbers tell us about the Capitals’ chances of making the playoffs when compared to seasons past? Looking at the last five seasons in the Eastern Conference, the point total to ensure a postseason appearance has been pretty steady.

Washington Capitals bench
Washington Capitals bench celebrates (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Last season, the point total necessary to get into the playoffs in the Eastern Conference was 98. The totals necessary in the prior four seasons were, respectively, 97, 95, 96, and 98. If averaged over the last five seasons, an Eastern Conference team needed 96.8 points to secure a playoff berth, or, in other words, needed to earn 59 percent of the 164 points available at the start of the season.

For those that want to take a more incremental approach to projections, if you divide the NHL season into eight equal segments, a team would need to average just over six wins per 10 games played.

The team’s record thus far should make fans in the nation’s capital happy. They currently sit at nine wins, two losses and three overtime losses for 21 points and first overall in the Eastern Conference. If you project that pace over the course of a whole season, it results in the team attaining 123 points, or 75 percent of all points available – easily enough to secure a playoff spot.

How Does that Stack up to Prior Seasons?

Understandably, Capitals’ fans will gauge every season’s progress, and ultimate success, to their Stanley Cup-winning season. But a look at the past few seasons’ starts for the team yields a surprising result – especially for those who view the 2017-18 campaign through nostalgic, Stanley Cup-infused, rose-colored glasses.

Alex Ovechkin Stanley Cup Capitol
Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin holds up the Stanley Cup at the National Mall in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

In fact, the start of the 2017-18 season was, putting it mildly, unimpressive for the Capitals. During the month of October, the team compiled five wins, six losses and one overtime loss for a grand total of 11 points or 45 percent of the 24 points available – well below the projected points total a team would need to continue playing hockey in late spring.

During that stretch, the team scored 36 goals, allowed 41 goals against for a team net of minus-five, which is a stat line that many a fan may forget about that beginning of that unforgettable season. If that isn’t enough, the team also went one for three on home ice in October.

Last season, the team was able to avoid a complete Stanley Cup slump by compiling five wins, three losses and two overtime losses for a total of 12 points in October, capturing 60 percent of the 20 points available. A total that put them slightly above the 59 percent season average teams have needed to get into the playoffs over the last five years in the Eastern Conference.

Reasons for Optimism Abound

When comparing the statistical start of this season to the past two campaigns for the Capitals, there is a lot for fans to look forward to entering November.

Gary Bettman presents Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) with the Stanley Cup
Gary Bettman presents Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) with the Stanley Cup (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Enthusiasm aside, is the current points pace sustainable for the Capitals? Probably not, especially considering the upgrades in personnel rivals have made throughout the conference. But the team is showing signs of increasing comfort under second-year coach Todd Reirden and his systems are yielding results.

In conjunction with better familiarity with Reirden’s systems, the Capitals’ attention to detail has also shown improvement. Their team net of plus-eight is a marked improvement over the last two seasons’ starts and their special teams are looking in mid-season form.

So, is it too early to crown anyone Stanley Cup favorites? Yes.

If you are a Capitals fan, however, the trend lines and individual performances all point to a campaign full of promise.