At the quarter mark of the season, it’s safe to say the Washington Capitals still know how to dominate the regular season. They currently sit atop the NHL standings with 30 points thanks in large part to a superb 10-1-1 home record.
Still, there’s plenty of room for improvement between now and April.
Here are five prevalent trends through 21 games to keep an eye on.
The Improved Penalty Kill
The most noticeable area of improvement has been the penalty kill, which was 25th last season and is now ninth in the league. Bruce Boudreau is utilizing a more aggressive system which emphasizes pressuring the point men and not giving opponents space and time to make decisions and allow lanes to open up.
The unit started the season a perfect 25-for-25 on the PK and has dipped since then but is still noticeably better. After starting the season with a .975 save percentage on the penalty kill, goaltender Michal Neuvirth has regressed back to a more sustainable .913.
What’s Going on With Ovie?
Ovechkin hasn’t looked right all season. He’s 10th in the league in goal scoring — tied with Corey Perry and Milan Lucic. He’s on pace for just eight power play goals after registering 13 last season. He also doesn’t seem to be attacking the offensive zone with the same tenacity as he once did. Sure, we’re spoiled: Ovechkin is tied for third the league in overall points. Something just looks…off.
Alexander Semin’s Superb Play
Semin has played arguably the best hockey of his career to start the season. Whether it’s because he’s just on a hot streak or has truly turned a corner he’s been the best forward on the team. He’s third in the league in both goals and points but has also been chipping in defensively, contributing heavily on the penalty kill.
OK, so he’s taken more minor penalties than anyone on the team (including three against the Flyers last Saturday) but it’s all part of the package.
Of course, Semin is notoriously streaky as everyone found out in last year’s playoffs. Time will tell whether this is for real or simply another great 20-game stretch.
The Emergence of Karl Alzner and John Carlson
With defensive mainstay Tom Poti having missed all but five games, Calson and Alzner have shown that they’re already capable of performing well in heavy minutes. The two have posted the best Corsi ratings on the Capitals’ blueline and are go-to’s for Boudreau in PK situations.
Alzner has taken just four minor penalties all season while averaging over 18 minutes of ice time and has the lowest GA/ON 60 rating of any blue liner on the team. Carlson is becoming a one-man breakout ALA Mike Green and provides some offensive punch.
The team is average more GF/60 with him on the ice than any other defenseman including Green.
The More Things Change…
For all the chatter about the improved defense and goaltending that were trademarks of the Caps throughout the first 10-15 games, things are back to where they were last year.
Neuvirth’s save percentage so far is .912. Jose Theodore’s save percentage last season was .911
Last year the Capitals allowed 2.77 goals against per game. This year they’re allowing 2.76 goals against per game.
All of this plays into Capitals fans’ biggest fears: that nothing has truly changed about this team since last season. What they do works great in the regular season, but are they forming habits that will allow them to advance further in the playoffs? Are they avoiding mental mistakes? Are they clamping down when they have leads? Are they playing a full sixty minutes every night?
Despite their dominance, the Caps are still struggling to put together consistent 60 minute efforts. They take big leads then give up two or three goals at a time to let teams back in. They constantly have to battle back from behind since they surrender the first goal so often. In the end, they’re talented enough to overcome it all.
But it’s the same song as last season so far. It’s a fun and entertaining brand of hockey that works wonders during the regular season, but there’s no evidence that the Caps have learned or changed anything following an embarrassing flame out in the playoffs.
At this point, the roster and the coaching staff have remained pretty much the same since 2008 and so has the brand of hockey, the results and the team culture. That’s unlikely to change unless the Capitals address some of their needs via trade. Namely, they could still use a second-line center and at least one more proven defenseman to take minutes away from Tyler Sloan.
The trade deadline is still months away, so all fans can do is enjoy the team’s winning ways with the hopes that help is on the way. After all, this team needs tweaking, not rebuilding.