It’s hard to be a Capitals fan.
To love Washington’s entry in the National Hockey League is to love a team of immense gifts — Alex Ovechkin is perhaps the greatest scorer in NHL history — and immense heartbreak.
Since Ovechkin was the NHL’s Rookie of the Year in 2005-06, the Capitals have won their division seven times and have been to the playoffs nine times. In that span they’ve never so much as reached a conference final. Three of those times, they’ve led the league in points and lost a Game 7 in the first or second round of the playoffs.
Moreover, after first making the playoffs in 1983, the Caps have missed the playoffs only seven times. In 27 postseason tournaments, Washington has reached exactly one Stanley Cup Final — getting swept by Detroit in 1998.
So, here they are again, in first place entering March. What reasons are there to think the Capitals will avoid a fourth straight second-round ouster?
Not many, it appears.
The Caps more or less stood pat at the trade deadline, giving up third- and fifth-round draft picks for a couple of players best described as “defensive depth.”
The moves were underwhelming, considering Washington’s woes on the back end this season. Among the eight teams who would be in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket as of March 1, the Caps’ save percentage of .908 ranked sixth, their goal differential average of .08 ranked seventh, and their shot differential average of -3.8 was dead last.
It hasn’t helped that first-string goalie Braden Holtby is trending in the wrong direction. He’s carrying a save percentage of .908 — well off his career mark of .920 — and he’s even dipped since the halfway point of the season, when he was at .917.
At least his backup, Philipp Grubauer, has been on a hot streak of late. After posting a first-half save percentage of .909, he’s up to .922 (better than his career number) and won his last four February starts while allowing one goal against 29 shots in two relief appearances for Holtby.
Ovechkin and the Offense
True, at age 32, Ovechkin is showing no signs of slowing down. He’s leading the league in goals — if he finishes the season in that spot, he’ll tie Bobby Hull’s record of topping the league in that category seven times.
25-year-old center Evgeny Kuznetsov has blossomed after starting the season playing beside Ovechkin on the top line.
T.J. Oshie, after scoring 33 goals in a contract year last season, had just 12 entering March. And Nicklas Backstrom, feeding Ovechkin since 2007, has seen his assists dip as his ice time with the Russian superstar has become less consistent.
February was a strange month. First place in the Metropolitan Division was briefly ceded to Pittsburgh as the Penguins won six straight. But Pittsburgh lost its last two of the month and the Caps won two of their last three to enter March atop the heap, with Philadelphia sneaking ahead of the Penguins.
Despite their spot in the standings, expectations for the Capitals are low. A TSN midseason poll — which last year had 15 coaches picking them to reach the Finals — saw the Caps earn not so much as a single mention.
Maybe sneaking up on the competition is their best bet.
Author bio: AJ Lee is Marketing Coordinator for Pro Stock Hockey (prostockhockey.com), an online hockey shop offering authentic pro stock hockey equipment. He was born and raised in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, and has been a huge Blackhawks fan his entire life. AJ picked up his first hockey stick at age 3, and hasn’t put it down yet.
Photo Credit: sportsgrinder.com