By Bill Sands
Following Tuesday night’s overtime win over Carolina, the Washington Capitals are officially halfway through their season, with 41 games played out of 82. It’s been an eventful season to say the least, but fortunately the Caps are off until Sunday January 7. With almost a whole week off to catch their collective breath, what better time than now to take a look back at the first half of the season and reminisce about the main stories that have been most important in the 2017-18 season?
1. ‘We’re Not Going to Be Suck This Year’
Following last year’s disappointing loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7, the Caps faced a tumultuous off-season. Several key players left via free agency, including key contributors Karl Alzner, Justin Williams. and Daniel Winnik. Marcus Johansson was also shipped out of town in a trade with the New Jersey Devils, leading many to believe that it would be a rough year for the Caps with so many departures and not many impressive additions
Washington’s response? Another excellent regular season that has them in first place in the Metropolitan Division, second in the Eastern Conference, and third in the entire league. Alex Ovechkin said it in training camp, and it holds true in January: The Washington Capitals are not “going to be suck” in 2018.
Of course, Caps fans know that the regular season is relatively inconsequential when compared to the playoffs. The team has no problem showing up in the winter, but it’s the spring and summer that proves most frustrating. Nevertheless, the team’s strong start to the season has once again confirmed that Washington will be a Stanley Cup contender when the postseason rolls around.
2. Youth Movement
With so many important veterans leaving Washington, the team turned inwards to address their new roster vacancies. GM Brian MacLellan was cautious in free agency and avoided making a big splash in favor of bringing in complementary pieces such as Devante Smith-Pelly and Alex Chiasson.
To fill in the forward ranks and help out on defense, MacLellan has relied on the Hershey Bears, and the AHL affiliate has responded admirably. Jakub Vrana (who had already spent some time in DC), Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, and Chandler Stephenson have all made the jump to the big club and taken on bigger roles in the 2017-18 season. The strong play of this young group is a primary reason for the Caps’ strong season.
While they’re not exactly as exciting as the “Young Guns” core from 2007 that featured Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green, this new generation features an impressive mix of talent, speed, poise, and hockey IQ. They’re also much cheaper and their team-friendly cap hits make it possible for MacLellan to use his cap space to address other needs.
3. Playing Up (and Down)
The Caps’ impressive record is not the result of beating up on weaker teams. In fact, it’s practically the opposite: Washington has played most of the league’s top teams, and they’ve looked good in the process.
Against league-leading Tampa Bay, the Caps have a dominant win and a nail-biting OT loss. They have impressive road wins against Toronto, New Jersey, and Boston (the Caps actually have two wins in Beantown). The Caps also have impressive wins against Chicago, Columbus, and the New York Islanders.
One potentially troubling area has been the team’s inability to finish off weaker teams. The Arizona Coyotes are the league’s worst team, but they played the Caps close in both games and took 3 out of 4 points in games that Washington should have won handily. Other ugly losses include a 4-1 loss to Calgary at home, a 3-1 loss to lowly Buffalo, and a 6-2 loss at Colorado that capped off an underwhelming road trip.
In the age of parity, there are no easy games in the NHL, but good teams need to find a way to win games against the bad ones. Beating Toronto and Tampa Bay on back-to-back nights is great, but efforts like those are cancelled out when you lose 8-2 to Philadelphia. The Caps have shown they have no problem beating the league’s best, but Barry Trotz and the coaching staff need to find a way to keep the team motivated for games against weaker opponents.
Our other post on New Year’s resolutions provides a pretty clear picture of what we’d like to see from the Caps in 2018, but now it’s time to get out there and actually do it. Washington has a relatively quiet January with only 10 games, but the team can expect to see things kicked up a notch as soon as February hits. The Caps play 14 games in the short month and continue this pace into March and the schedule includes plenty of divisional match-ups now that the Caps have already played most of the teams in the Western Conference.