The Capitals are Washington, D.C.’s darlings, and they deserve the title. In a word, they are dominating. But this isn’t the kind of dominating of the 2009-10 President’s Trophy team that posted goals in gobs to compensate for lackluster defense and goaltending. This is the complete package.
Hockey is a sport I find particularly stressful to watch. I watch it for my adrenaline fix. When a game is close, time is short and teams are flying up and down the ice, it’s hard not to feel like anything can happen. A shot can find its way to the net from far too many places on the ice. Lines get tired and no lead is safe. The balance between exhilarating and frustrating is the appeal of the game, wrapped up in the beautiful chaos of huge men on ice skates.
With the Caps, though, a sense of calmness pervades the players. Levelheaded, cool, in-control — whatever they want to call it — the consensus is that when Washington takes the ice, it commands the game. It makes for an entirely different spectator experience. The team has such high expectations on a day-to-day basis that I have never seen before with this program.
The numbers back it up. The Caps sit atop the NHL with a 39-9-4 record in 52 games, good for 82 points. That’s six more than the second-best Chicago Blackhawks, who have played five more games than the Caps. Whatever way you twist it, the statistics are impressive. The club has broken all its previous records for the best start in team history up to this point, both in terms of wins and points. Per the Washington Post, the team is 17-0-0 when leading at the end of the first period and 26-1-0 when it scores first, and it is 29-0-1 when leading after two periods — numbers Washinton Post writer Dan Steinberg described as “absurd” in an article on the ascendance of the Capitals. This type of consistency really can only come down to competence and calmness. Good teams win games, but past Caps teams were notorious for their streaky, boom and bust style of play that becomes particularly troublesome — and heartbreaking — come playoff time. Washington has grown the most this year in the type of positions that provide the competency and consistency that can’t be countered.
The player who has been the most consistent has been the unbelievable Russian center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is making a run at John Wall for king of assists in the District. If you haven’t read his captivating article in the Players Tribune on his upbringing as a hockey player in Russia, please do. It perfectly encapsulates what Kuznetsov does on the ice, explaining his training in the pass-heavy Russian style. He is a wizard with the puck, racking up 54 points in 52 games this season with 39 assists and 15 goals. When he scores, it almost seems reluctant, as if even he knows that we are all missing out on another chance for a dazzling assist — the type of pass that doesn’t just beat the goalie but leaves him looking in completely the wrong direction. While this isn’t Kuzy’s first season, it is easily the marquee effort of his career.
The award for calmness goes to another career effort from Braden Holtby, the unflappable goalie leading the league in wins, who is in the top five in goals against average. He soaks up defensive lapses and breakaways, helping to propel the defense to a league second-best 2.3 goals against per game. Easily in the running for the Vezina Trophy, Holtby has served as the keystone for the team thus far, providing confidence and sustained success from the net.
Other names deserve mention — the offseason addition of T.J. Oshie has solidified the formidable first line, Nicklas Backstrom has continued to be a first-rate facilitator in his first year as a well-deserved All-Star and of course Alex Ovechkin has continued to blow through milestone after milestone, joining the prestigious 500-goal club last month.
D.C. is catching on that this team is something to watch. Regardless of postseason prospects, which I will not prognosticate on right now, the Capitals are deservedly the center of attention right now. And when the Caps play like this, Verizon Center becomes the best venue in town. It’s a hot ticket, a little pricier than the floundering Wizards, but to see Washington, D.C., athletics — and hockey — at its best, go to one of the home games left on the slate. The city is notorious for losing attention when a team loses steam — see the Wizards’ atrocious TV ratings this year — but when D.C. gets up for hockey, it’s worth catching a sight.
So get out and see what the city and its NHL team have to offer before it’s too late. It’s just a matter of time before we’re caught in the midst of a heartbreaking MLB season or forced to listen to the mystifying offseason decisions of the Redskins to entertain us. Before D.C. sports take the good times away from us, I implore you to enjoy them while you can.