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Scott Lowe The Hockey Writers

Published on Friday, November 27, 2015





Hot Capitals Stay Under the Radar and Keep Improving

Anyone who has watched the 2015-16 edition of the Washington Capitals play knows that they are good. They got off to the franchise’s best start through 13 games at 10-3, and now at 15-5-1 – and with 31 points – they are off to the second-best start in terms of points in franchise history through 21 contests.

On top of that they have the fourth-most wins (42) in the NHL during the past calendar year, and they rank fourth in the overall league standings behind Dallas, Montreal and the Rangers. Some North American power rankings even have touted them higher than that.

The Caps have been a model of consistency thus far, with no real eye-popping winning streak. They have compiled strings of five straight wins and three straight wins, along with a couple of two-game mini-streaks, but have yet to lose in back-to-back outings. They opened the season by winning two out of three despite playing without playmaking superstar Nicklas Backstrom, and their current three-game winning streak and 7-2-1 run over the past 10 games has been accomplished largely without top-paring defenseman and physical penalty-killer Brooks Orpik.

Still, when you look at the Eastern Conference standings and scan Twitter or listen to NHL talking heads, the Caps are flying a bit below the radar. Both Montreal and the Rangers have posted long winning streaks, so Washington is just third overall in the East and second in their own division. But when you dig a little deeper and listen to head coach Barry Trotz, you get the sense that this is just the way he wants it. There’s a sly tone of understated confidence when he speaks about this year’s Caps and what makes them different.

“We didn’t used to win if {Alex Ovechkin} and {Backstrom} didn’t get a point,” Trotz said after a recent victory. “We do that on a regular basis. We didn’t win games if we didn’t score three goals. It was astonishing how many games we didn’t win – just all the little things. I think we were a little bit of a one-trick pony before. We are adding and building the foundation of our game.”

The Numbers Don’t Lie

John Carlson has anchored one of the stingiest defensive groups in the NHL (Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

John Carlson has anchored one of the stingiest defensive groups in the NHL (Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

A further look into some of the numbers that seem to predict a team’s future success and provide more evidence about well Washington has been playing illustrates Trotz’ feelings. The Caps already have a goal differential of plus-20, fourth best in the NHL and one behind Dallas. Last year they hovered around the break-even point for a good part of the season before stringing a bunch of wins together in December and finding some consistency after Christmas.

Washington has won two games in which it has scored seven goals and has tallied five or more goals on six occasions, yet the Caps also have recorded a 1-0 win, a pair of 2-1 victories (one in overtime) and come up short in another 1-0 contest. The Caps also have done a better job of closing out games in the third period, posting a 9-0 mark when leading after the second period.

Last season it seemed as though every victory was of the one-goal, white-knuckle variety with the team flailing in the deep water while Braden Holtby kept the group afloat against a barrage of late-game shots. This year the team has six one-goal victories out of 15, but has played with much more confidence when ahead late in a game. The Caps often seem to be on the attack rather than on their heels when holding a late lead.

Washington still can score with the best of them – with 67 goals the Caps are tied for fifth in the league – but they also have become the type of shutdown defensive team that Trotz wants. They rank second in the NHL in shots against per game (26.0), fifth in goals against per game (2.24) and eighth in penalty killing (83.9 percent), all while holding their opponents to 30 or fewer shots in 17 of the last 19 contests.

“We can win 1-0 games,” Trotz said. “We can play a wide-open game. We have shown the ability that if we don’t score first we can come back. I think we’ve got good personnel, and they believe in what we are trying to accomplish. It’s not just what we do in the regular season. We want to build and make some noise deep into the playoffs. That’s why the acquisitions that we made in the summer made a lot of sense to go that route and get people who were still in the primes of their career.”

Coming of Age

Swift-skating Nate Schmidt is starting to live up to his potential (Tom Turk/The Hockey Writers)

Swift-skating Nate Schmidt is starting to live up to his potential (Tom Turk/The Hockey Writers)

All of this has been accomplished while working two of those acquisitions – first-line right wing T.J. Oshie and second-line winger Justin Williams – into the forward mix and with offseason pickup Taylor Chorney seeing a good deal of time on the blue line along with youngsters Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt. So despite the sparkling results to date, the Capitals still are a bit of a work in progress.

“The three younger guys – Schmidt, Chorney and Orlov – have all risen their game, so you do have a better comfort with them,” Trotz said. “And when you’re winning more than you’re losing that helps build the comfort level with them as well. Brooks is a big part of our group, not only on the ice, but off the ice. The leadership – and he’s a physical presence back there – he’s a big body and a big part of the penalty kill. We miss him, but it’s a good time to develop guys and see what you really have. Guys want opportunities, and the opportunity is there and they’re earning more minutes. We’re not in a panic wondering who we can call up from Hershey or who can do better. This is the group, and we’re going to see if they can get it done.”

And getting it done they have been of late after a less-than-stellar opening few weeks. Chorney began the season as the seventh defenseman and has lived up to his billing as a smart, steady and conservative defender who will not make crucial mistakes. He has appeared in 12 games to date, notching two assists and an impressive plus-six rating playing alongside Orlov when in the lineup.

Schmidt, the team’s best skater, found himself on the outside looking in almost immediately, scratched in favor of the more conservative Chorney a couple games into the season. When on his game, though, Schmidt impresses with his effortless and swift skating, ability to move the puck and potential to join the rush offensively.

The upside has always been there for Schmidt, and after the initial benching he performed better in limited opportunities before Orpik’s lower-body injury gave him a chance to get back into the lienup every night. Since then he has been paired with top blueliner John Carlson, playing with more confidence at both ends of the ice and flashing more of his enormous potential. For the year he has a goal and two assists in 16 appearances and is a plus-3. He stepped into the offensive zone in a recent game against Colorado and picked a corner for his first goal of the season and made a brilliant pass to Backstrom on an offensive rush for a marker against Winnipeg Wednesday.

Schmidt’s emergence has coincided with Orlov’s return to full strength after battling with a wrist injury that sidelined him for well over a year. Orlov was touted as a future star when joining the Caps out of Russia, but has struggled with his consistency and injuries to this point. He appeared to be on the verge of moving into the everyday lineup before the wrist injury, and just didn’t look entirely comfortable early on this season.

Well that certainly has changed since Orpik’s injury. Orlov scored in back-to-back games for the first time at the NHL level this week and then tallied for the third straight contest Wednesday. Most impressive about Wednesday’s bullet goal from the point was the velocity and accuracy of the shot. Orlov was always said to have one of the hardest shots in pro hockey, but it had not been evident as he continued to recover from the wrist injury. Now, after an up-and-down start, Orlov has settled in and has 3-6-9 and a plus-6 rating while appearing in all 21 contests. He has two straight game-winning goals after starting the season with just one game-winner and six total goals in his previous 119 NHL games.

“Pucks are starting to go in for him,” Trotz said after Thursday’s victory. “He’s feeling it. He shoots the puck really well and it’s good to see. That’s probably the most encouraging thing. The velocity is back on his shot, which tells me he’s come full circle in terms of the injury.

“It’s really no different from a baseball pitcher who has Tommy John. Is he going to get his velocity back? You hope he does. You’re just not sure. With today’s medical procedures now that they can perform usually it just takes time, and that’s something that pro sports GMs and coaches don’t have much of is time and patience. Hopefully he’s coming around here. It’s good to see him have some success.”

That success – and the improved play of his other young defensive teammates – gives this Washington Capitals team, which is already good, a chance to be great. The question is how much longer can Barry Trotz keep this group flying under the radar?


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