After 43 games played, the Washington Capitals top the overall standings with 69 points – second-placed Dallas stands seven points behind the Caps, after 44 games.
They will almost certainly make the playoffs via automatic qualification; but is their team complete enough to go the distance?
Goals For and Against
Just past the half-way point, Washington ranked second in the goals for column. They sat just six goals behind Dallas supernova power forwards, two of whom sit in the top three point scorers- Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.
Alex Ovechkin inevitably tops Washington’s goal scoring, but their other star skaters like T.J. Oshie, Evegny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, Justin Williams and Jason Chimera are all pulling their weight.
So they’re high scoring, not too difficult when you have the snipers that they do. What makes this crop of Caps so strong is that they’ve only conceded 91 goals after 43 games, which posts them as the lowest conceding team in the league.
The Capitals goal differential of +52 after 43 contests is just incredible. On the surface, this shows a very well balanced team that values offence just as much as defence.
Washington’s Key Players
Braden Holtby is well on track to reach the 50 wins mark. On just two shutouts, the top Vezina award candidate still posted a 1.90 goals against average and a .933 save percentage in his first 28 wins of the season.
What’s also promising from a playoffs perspective is that Holt-Beast’s back-up, Philip Grauber, has been decent when called upon, going 5-3-1.
Karl Alzner may not be the most regular name on the score sheet, as John Carlson is, but he has laid his body on the line for his team in every match-up. He’s doled out 69 hits and blocked 115 shots by the mid-season mark.
Tom Wilson, the cheeky 21-year-old winger is not only Washington’s resident enforcer – posting 102 penalty minutes and 124 hits – he’s also stepped up on the scoring front. He has 4 goals and 11 assists after 43 games, and is well on track to beat his career best of 17 points.
Last season, the 2010 first rounder, Kuznetsov, had his breakout year, totalling 37 points in 80 appearances. Half way through this season, the Russian skater is already 4 points better off. He stands second in the league on assists (21).
The Caps pulled off two of the best off-season additions in the NHL with Oshie and Williams. Oshie comes in as one of the most dangerous forwards in the league, and Justin Williams is a top performing veteran, with a lot of Stanley Cup experience – 115 post-season games, 78 points and three cup wins.
After a slow start in lower lines, Oshie has been playing on the top line – with Backstrom and Ovechkin – which creates one of the most formidable forward lines in the league.
In the first half of the season, Ovechkin broke the franchise scoring record and eclipsed the 500 career goal mark. It’s not just his league leading 26 goals that is impressive. Ovie also has 13 assists, 216 shots on goal and a shooting percentage of 12.0%. On top of all this offensive power, he’s also grinded out 121 hits – ranking him 18th in the league and second amongst Washington players.
Backstrom, Carlson, Marcus Johansson and Brooks Orpik are also amongst the many star players in the Capitals roster.
Powerplays and Penalty Kills
Not surprisingly, the Washington Capitals are one of the league’s best sides on the powerplay. Their mid-point powerplay percentage of 26.1% ranks them second in the league.
Perhaps more surprisingly, their penalty killing is also ranked amongst the top teams. Their PK percentage stands at 85.0%, setting them at fourth in the league when a man down.
Their defensive power can also been seen in the limited amount of shots that they allow. On average, the Caps concede 28.7 shots, on their net per game – which is the 10th best in the league.
Despite Washington appearing to be a very offensive orientated team, due to their elite forwards, their defensive play has really stepped up to make them into an incredibly well-rounded team.
However, the Capitals do have a weakness. It’s not a huge issue – and their success in spite of the problem is credit to their team’s incredible performances so far – but it is a weakness nonetheless. This weakness is puck possession.
The NHL doesn’t record a specific statistic for possession, zone entries, or time on the attack, so analysing possession is down to some interpretation. You can see a rough picture through faceoff wins, giveaway/takeaway differentials and, to a lesser extent, shots on goal. A team could hold the puck for minutes in the opposition’s zone but have zero shots on net, dominating the puck just not the shooting – the stats available don’t show this.
It’s quite strange that the team topping the overall rankings, and the goal differential column, ranks 17th with their 50.0% faceoff win percentage. Their top line center, Backstrom, ranks 22nd on total faceoff wins at 49.7%.
Then there’s the Caps giveaway/takeaway differential. After 43 games, Backstrom stood with the best difference, with 12 more takes than gives which, at the time, didn’t even rank him in the top 30 in the league.
Eight other Capitals players trail the Swede, with a positive giveaway/takeaway differential: Williams, Johansson, Wilson, Orpik, Niskanen, Chimera, Carlson, Alzner and Ovechkin are all in the red – with “Great 8” on -16.
Overcoming the Issue with Elite Keeping, Defending and Sharpshooters
Despite the amount of giveaways, and the relatively low faceoff percentage, Washington still ranks in the top ten for average shots per game, at 30.9.
The available possession data points to Washington not being as dominant as their scoring, and shot and goal prevention, would suggest – which makes their domination of the standings even more impressive.
Washington appears to have been able to operate as a top scoring unit with less puck possession than the other leading teams in the NHL.
It seems that this flaw in their hockey fares well with their team play, probably because Holtby has been a monster between the pipes. As they can rely on their defenders and goalie, the lack of possession doesn’t matter too much. Plus, they have so many snipers, they can almost score on demand.Although faceoff win percentage isn’t the deciding factor in any matchup; it just so happens that half of Washington’s regular time losses have come against teams that post superior faceoff win percentages to them – the Sharks, Stars, Hurricanes and Sabres defeated the Caps by a combined score of 16-5.Obviously no team can win every contest, but it seems beyond coincidental that the Caps have fallen to these superior faceoff teams in half of their regular time losses.
Will Washington Become Unravelled?
It’s hard to see Washington losing too many games this season. They’ll inevitably have a slight off-period at some point, but Holtby should be anticipating a 50+ win season.The faceoffs are a bit troubling, but not enough to stop them from being a top contender to lead the overall standings in April, and to also push on to the Stanley Cup finals.