The Washington Capitals have been humming along here, distancing themselves from the competition at an increasingly rampant pace. Despite having played the second fewest number of total games thus far, they have more wins than anyone else. During a time in which parity reigns supreme with the number of loser points being handed out keeping teams clustered together closely, they’re the only division leader holding a double-digit lead.
The only thing that’s really been able to slow them down in any meaningful manner this season has been Mother Nature, and even then it’s hardly mattered. When the weather has permitted, they’ve been firing on all cylinders as a group. Like with any great team, there’s been many forces responsible for that success.
They have the best goal differential by a comfortable margin, thanks to a combination of the league’s most potent offensive attack and stingiest defense. Their power play is as unforgiving as it’s ever been, being courteous enough to let opponents pick the manner in which they’ll be beaten. Once teams finally get sick of willingly letting the league’s most lethal scorer do his thing and send extra attention his way, an equally devastating playmaker takes advantage of additional passing windows to pick them apart. On the other end of the ice, their goaltender, Braden Holtby, is not only the front-runner for the Vezina Trophy, but may also start warranting some Hart Trophy buzz if he keeps producing like this for the balance of the schedule. That’s all?
There’s more. What’s been a particularly important revelation this season has been the emergence of Evgeny Kuznetsov, who’s effectively made the jump from highly regarded prospect in certain quadrants of the internet to legitimate NHL star. His play on the ice has only really been rivaled by his off-ice persona, which has been a refreshing development in a league filled with young players who have had much of that fun and personality coached out of them since day one.
The fact that he’s tied for 5th overall in league scoring is impressive in its own right, but becomes even more commendable when accounting for both the efficiency and well-rounded nature of how he’s gotten there. He’s 10th in rate of five-on-five production (2.45 points/60), 6th in power play efficiency (7.49 points/60), and 4th overall (3.31 points/60, behind just Patrick Kane, Benn, and Seguin). He’s also been one of the most prominent beneficiaries of the new overtime format, with only 7 forwards averaging more usage than him in those circumstances (Kopitar, Taranseko, Steen, Duchene, Turris, Tavares, and Evander Kane). His unique combination of patience, poise, creativity, and skill have been on full display with the additional ice surface with which to work with, harkening back to his KHL days where only Vladimir Tarasenko was really able to rival him when adjusting for age. It’s been a big reason why the Capitals have been able to extend their dominance to that aspect of the game as well.
The direct imprint he’s left on the Capitals juggernaut has been an obvious one. Just as important, however, has been the indirect byproduct of his emergence. More subtle has been the dilemma he’s presented opponents with. Unlike in past years, they now can’t devote the full efforts of their defense on attempting to shut down just the one line while blissfully ignoring the rest. If they negligently do so anyways, then Kuznetsov’s line will eat their secondary defensive options alive. But if they account for that and choose to play the Capitals straight up, that frees Ovechkin and Backstrom up, making their lives easier than they’ve ever been.
To be frank, this sort of luxury hasn’t been easy to come by for them over the years. Even when they were running all over the rest of the league as a team in the late 2000s, the supporting cast itself was really moreso passable than anything resembling notable. Dating all the way back to the ‘07-’08 season when Backstrom came into the league, there have been 9 different occasions in which a Capitals forward other than Ovechkin or Backstrom has reached the 50-point plateau.
Even that doesn’t necessarily paint the clearest of pictures, because of how much nearly every single one of those outbursts, if you can call them that, were dependent on those two top guys. Those best Semin seasons, for example, were brimming with power play production playing alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom. Kozlov, Knuble, and Ribeiro all played the majority of their five-on-five minutes in those respective seasons on the top line. Laich himself, whose ‘09-’10 season is probably the gold standard for a relatively independent secondary scoring source for the Capitals, included 12 goals and 21 points playing on the power play with those top guys.
Kuznetsov figures to rapidly climb this list as the season goes along, though even more of a premium should be awarded to him given how much of that production is coming from his own doing. As such, he and Backstrom have combined to be the most productive 1-2 combination down the middle in the league this season:
All of this bodes awfully well for the Capitals, as a second viable complementary scoring line has made them nearly impossible to game plan for. They’re right up there with that aforementioned ‘09-’10 version of the team in terms of laying claim to being the best hockey team we’ve seen call Washington home. But with Kuznetsov’s emergence and Braden Holtby in net, this year’s team has added a pair of wrinkles that has them better positioned for playoff success than those that came before them.
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