(photo by Brian Murphy)
After last night’s 3-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators, the Washington Capitals now have a week off to get rested and healthy before the second half of the season. With that in mind, this seems as good a time as any to take an in-depth look at what’s been good, what’s been not-so-good and what’s in store for the Caps. In this first installment, we’ll focus on the highlights for the 2008-09 Capitals.
Led by the best player in hockey, left wing Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals are off to their best start in franchise history.
At the All Star break, the Caps stand 30-15-3, which is good enough for second place in the Eastern Conference. Only Boston, San Jose and Detroit have earned more points than Washington through the first half of the season.
While much of the focus goes to Ovechkin, there are other players who have contributed to the team’s success this season. In fact, the Caps are tied for the league lead with seven different players (Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Tomas Fleischmann, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich and Viktor Kozlov) having scored at least 10 goals this season.
After his customary slow start, Ovechkin now leads the NHL in goals scored with 31 and is third in the league in points with 59. Top-line center Nicklas Backstrom continues to develop into one of the premiere setup men in hockey and ranks seventh in the league in assists with 36. While we’re on the subject of Backstrom, his eight goals and 16 assists also earn him a spot among the league leaders in powerplay points. He may only have 12 goals this season, but Mike Green leads all defensemen in powerplay goals with 10. And although forward Alexander Semin has only played in 29 games, he ranks sixth in the NHL in plus/minus. So, it’s safe to say the big guns are getting it done for Washington.
The Capitals are great at home (19-3-1) and truly have a home-ice advantage thanks to passionate and knowledgeable fans who routinely pack the Verizon Center. Not only have there been more sellouts (12) at the halfway point this year than all of last season, but general manager George McPhee recently said they’re sold out for most of the second half of the season as well.
Through 23 home games, the Capitals’ average attendance is 17,973 (more than 96 percent capacity). But what folks may not realize is that the average attendance for Caps road games is nearly as good at 17,666 (also more than 96 percent). One year ago, the Caps averaged roughly 82 percent attendance both home and away, so while the economy has taken a turn for the worse, people are still flocking to see this young and exciting team.
Regardless of whether the games are played on home ice or not, this team has been great against the teams that matter. If the playoffs started today, the Capitals are 13-3-2 against teams who would qualify for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. And while some may claim that the Caps are a product of playing in a sub-standard Southeast Division, that’s simply not the case. They are 9-1-2 against the Atlantic Division and 8-3-1 against the Northeast Division. Bottom line, this team can compete with anyone in the East.
But what’s most impressive is that, even though they’ve had a ton of injuries thus far this season, the Capitals have managed to weather the storm and still find a way to consistently win.
Five defensemen – Karl Alzner, Sean Collins, Bryan Helmer, Sami Lepisto and Tyler Sloan – have appeared in games for Washington after starting the season in the minors. If you count the four games center Sergei Federov had to play on defense (just so the team could have six defensemen), then the Caps have used 12 different blueliners this season. Across the board, the Caps have used a total of 33 players this year and yet, they still have the best record in franchise history. Why is that? Because of Bruce Boudreau.
It seems that no matter who suits up for the Caps, they still find a way to win primarily because of the masterful job behind the bench by Boudreau, who took just 85 games to reach 50 wins (a franchise record). Thanks to a talent-laden roster and Boudreau’s attacking style of offense, the Caps have a chance for victory, even on off nights when things just aren’t going their way.
Which leads us to our biggest point, this team just knows how to win. They win high-scoring affairs. They win defensive battles. They just win. And when you factor in the collective records of the local football, basketball and baseball teams, the Caps are the only team around that can say that.