The Washington Capitals (37-15) are steaming toward the end of what has been a very successful hockey campaign so far, setting the pace for the rest of the league as the number one seed for most of the season.
The coaching staff is leery however, keeping an eye on Metro division rivals, as the Caps attempt to avoid any serious pratfalls while the season winds down.
“It doesn’t get easy. The metro is a real tough division and that keeps us motivated,” assistant coach Scott Arniel said right after the Capitals had just faced the arch-nemesis Pittsburgh Penguins for the first time this season on February 2, a game D.C. lost 4-3.
The schedule won’t get easier, as a now healthy Penguins team will face the Caps four more times over the last 20 games. There will also be teams fighting for the playoffs and looking for something to prove against the best team in the league. The Capitals have been the top seed, or close to it, for much of the season, led in particular by the stunning play of captain Alex Ovechkin and defenseman John Carlson.
At 34 years old, Ovechkin has been playing like a man possessed – even by his lofty standards – having potted 40 goals by early February, as he looks to move past the 700-goal milestone, an achievement only surpassed by a handful of hockey legends.
“He has a shot that is so hard to defend. It’s a heavy shot, but he also scores in so many different ways,” Arniel said. “When he first came into the league, he was a little one-dimensional, but now he uses the whole ice.”
Carlson is roundly being mentioned as a top candidate for the James Norris Memorial Trophy this year, which is awarded to the league’s best defenseman. He was leading the Capitals with 67 points as of early February and has established himself as one of the elite blueliners in the game. But the Capitals are a deep squad that boast elite talent and the necessary supporting cast of meat and potato-type players as well.
Arniel said the coaching staff has been very pleased with the depth provided by the third and fourth-forward lines, or the “bottom six.”
“There’s a role for each of these guys and they have bought into these roles, and this has really helped out our top six. When you can put your fourth line out in any situation, that’s when you’re a real confident team.”
The Capitals have also been buoyed by the stellar play of young backup goaltender Ilya Samsonov, who has established himself as a more-than-capable alternative to number one goalie Braden Holtby.
DC’s team got off to a blazing start and shot to the top of the standings early, winning those ever-so-important early games to establish a dominant position. With the regular season nearing an end and the playoffs looming, the coaches are maintaining a fine balance of being competitive while maximizing player rest and maintenance time.
Collectively, the team is playing with a chip on its shoulder after losing in the first round of the playoffs last year to the Carolina Hurricanes. This is evident by some of the ferocious comeback wins the team has pulled, most notably a 5-4 win over the San Jose Sharks on January 5, in which the Caps scored twice in the final minute to tie the game before winning in overtime. The team is showing the type of backbone that secured it the Stanley Cup in 2018. The players are determined to make a big run through the playoffs and avoid the type of setback it experienced last year.
“Last year it was kind of humbling for everybody after winning the cup,” Arniel said. “It may have been a blessing in disguise that we did get beat in the first round because it allowed us to rest and recover. There were a lot of lingering injuries and it allowed us to get a full summer of conditioning.”
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