Something very special is happening with the Washington Capitals this season. The team has been on fire since its first game, and is on pace for an astounding 120 points or more by season’s end.
While excited about the team’s prospects heading to the playoffs, the fan base has also reason to be leery after experiencing heartbreaking finishes year after year.
However, there is a wholly different feeling for this Capitals team. They play shutdown defensive hockey seemingly at will, they intimidating opponents with size and snarl. Opponents fall behind a couple goals and seem resigned to defeat because goaltender Braden Holtby has been that good.
Capitals teams in recent years have always been an offensive threat, but fans seem unanimous in the consensus that this is the most cohesive, complete unit they have seen. Ever.
“We’re a team that’s not taking anything for granted right now,” says defenseman Nate Schmidt. “We have an unbelievable group in the lockerroom. It’s a real team-first mentality.”
In his third year with Washington, Schmidt has really come into his own and established himself as a regular in the lineup. He personifies the depth, character, and resiliency of this team, filling in more than capably while veterans John Carlson and Brooks Orpik have missed significant time with injuries.
Schmidt was signed as a free agent by the Capitals in April 2013 after shining at the collegiate level at the University of Minnesota. After spending his first couple of seasons in and out of the lineup, Schmidt has stepped up his game and impressed fans so much that many consider him a top-four defenseman, even after Carlson and Orpik return for regular duty.
“I talked with Coach [Barry] Trotz about what it takes to be an everyday player, and having the confidence to go and make the plays I know I could make,” Schmidt says. He also praised assistant coach Todd Reirden for being helpful with polishing his overall game. This is Reirden’s first year with the Caps, but he spent the four previous seasons as an assistant with the rival Pittsburgh Penguins where he worked closely with their defensemen and power-play unit, including current Capitals Orpik and Matt Niskanen.
Reirden, a former player himself, has helped Schmidt stay positive while stressing the finer points of being a solid defenseman. “He’s worked with some really good defensemen over the years,” Schmidt tells On Tap. “And he’s really pushed me along and helped me find my niche.”
Bench boss Trotz has brought a disciplined structure to the team in just his second year as coach that has not been seen in Washington in recent memory. He has been able to develop young prospects like Schmidt and his defense partner Dmitry Orlov while getting the mainstays and veteran newcomers like T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams to buy into the system.
Perhaps foremost, Trotz has gotten superstar and team captain Alex Ovechkin to lead the other players in becoming one of the better teams in hockey at two-way play, meaning they skate and forecheck relentlessly to be just as effective on defense as they are on offense.
Ovechkin is still putting up his usual spectacular numbers, and attained an esteemed and extremely rare feat when he recorded his 500th career goal on January 10 against the Ottawa Senators. Personal achievements aside, Ovechkin and his teammates are well-aware that records and the regular season is meaningless once the playoffs arrive.
As of mid-January, the Capitals were a league-best 34-8-3 with 71 points. The next closest team was the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference with 64 points, and they had just surged up standings with a hot streak. The Capitals were picked by many experts before the season to make it to the Stanley Cup finals, and that pick seems legitimate so far.
Most importantly, throughout their trouncing of opponents this year, this Capitals team has evoked an air of confidence that is unmistakable. They wholeheartedly recognize and believe that they are an elite force; that they are a team that is immune to the gaffes and pratfalls that have plagued Capitals teams of the past.
“We enjoy being around each other each and every day,” Schmidt said. “We have something special brewing here. I think the goal is to bring some hardware back to DC.”
Hardware in individual categories seems inevitable this year, as Trotz, Holtby and Ovechkin are all early favorites for awards.
However, the ultimate hardware, of course, is the Stanley Cup. After all the years of anguish and despair, the soul-crushing defeats and hollow endings, the thoroughness with which this team dispatches foes simply cannot be ignored.
These Capitals are simply radiant. Moreover, they are on a mission to reach the Stanley Cup finals.
To learn more about the Capitals visit www.capitals.nhl.com and follow them on Twitter (@washcaps) and Facebook (@WashingtonCapitals.)
Ovie Nets 500
It is only fitting that in the middle of what could be the most successful regular season in the history of the Capitals, Alex Ovechkin reached a momentous milestone. On January 10, the captain ripped a shot past Ottawa goaltender Andrew Hammond to score the 500th goal of his extraordinary career.
Ovechkin became the first Russian-born player to reach the
500-goal mark, and the 43rd player overall. The Great Eight was also the fifth-fastest ever to hit 500, having gotten there in his 801st game. Only Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull, and Mario Lemieux – all Hall of Famers – reached the plateau faster.
The Capitals are enjoying a tremendous regular season, having led the NHL in points as of mid-January. The team is hungry for playoff success after years of early exits, and fans and experts feel this team could legitimately challenge for the Stanley Cup. That Ovechkin was able to record his 500th goal only adds to the mystique the Capitals team is building this year.
Ovechkin also notched his 501st goal later that night against Ottawa, and later that week was awarded a golden stick in a brief ceremony at the Verizon Center. Having achieved so many individual goals already, expect Ovechkin’s intensity to only increase as the team ramps up its chase for the Cup.
Ovechkin leads the NHL in power-play and game-winning goals and points since entering the NHL at the beginning of the 2005-2006 season.
Photo courtesy Washington Capitals