We’re just past the midway point of the 2015-16 NHL season, and the Washington Capitals are only tightening their grip on the best record in hockey.
At 33-7-3, they were a full seven points ahead of the Dallas Stars entering play on Friday. And they’re not showing signs of slowing down anytime soon.
It’s not hard to find reasons why this group is having success. Alex Ovechkin is one of the best pure goal scorers of all time, and Barry Trotz knows how to get the most out of him on both ends of the ice. To that end, Trotz is just an all around good coach — a top contender for the Jack Adams this year — and is providing more stability at that position than the franchise has had in quite awhile.
Those aren’t the only factors working in this group’s favor though. The blue line is impressive, and the supporting cast up front is quite possibly the best it has ever been since Ovechkin broke into the league back in 2005. Seven different players have registered double-digit goals — the most in the NHL — and Evgeny Kuznetsov has rapidly emerged as one of the sport’s breakout stars.
How good has the supporting cast been? Ovechkin is actually third on the team in scoring at the moment, behind Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom.
That’s all great news for Washington fans, and it might very well be enough to win the organization the Presidents’ trophy. But what about the ultimate goal? The Stanley Cup is what they’re actually playing for, and that’s something that has eluded this franchise for its entire existence. In fact, the Capitals have won just four playoff series total since 1998.
There’s a very compelling reason why this season could be different though, and it’s the man in net. Braden Holtby established himself as a strong starter with a workhorse mentality a year ago. Now he looks like the best goalie in hockey.
Holtby’s emergence has been relatively rapid, though it certainly didn’t happen overnight. After being taken in the fourth round of the 2008 draft, he spent another season with the Saskatoon Blades, before bouncing back and forth between Washington and Hershey of the AHL for a couple years. He led the Caps in starts in both the 2012-13 and 2013-14 campaigns, then really took off last year, starting a league-high 72 games while compiling 41 wins, a 2.22 goals against average and a .923 save percentage. He also threw nine shutouts in there for good measure, but got lost in the shuffle of Devan Dubnyk’s improbable second-half run and Carey Price’s historic season.
This time around, it’s Holtby who’s pushing all the other netminders into the background. His 28-4-2 record is — by far — the best in hockey, and nobody with more than 17 starts can match his 1.91 GAA or .933 save percentage. They don’t hand out awards in January, but they almost could in this case. Barring injury, the Vezina is pretty definitively his to lose already.
If he were to stumble in the second half (and by “stumble”, I mean completely meltdown, allow about seven goals per game for a couple weeks, then chase an on-ice official around the neutral zone while angrily waving his goalie stick above his head), Jonathan Quick, Ben Bishop, Roberto Luongo and maybe Cory Schneider or Corey Crawford would be the candidates most likely to take a run at the top honor bestowed upon netminders in the second half. But they’d have to make a pretty strong push and — again — Holtby would have to stumble.
Much like Washington didn’t start this season with sights set on winning the Presidents’ Trophy though, taking home a potential Vezina isn’t why Holtby hits the ice every night. Thing is, it’s his play between the pipes that has many believing this could finally be Washington’s year to make a deep playoff run. Ovechkin’s playing great, but he’s played great in the past. And yes, the supporting cast up front is better, the defense is among the best in the league (especially when John Carlson is healthy) and Trotz is a phenomenal coach — but that probably wouldn’t be enough on its own.
The bottom line is, you basically have to have strong goaltending to make a deep run in today’s NHL. That’s virtually non-negotiable. Sure, you might get through a round or two on raw talent alone, but there’s almost no way to navigate through four best-of-seven playoff series without your netminder bailing you out a few times. Time will tell if the Capitals can stay healthy and keep rolling like this through April and May, but they clearly have the pieces in place this time. And Holtby might just be the most important piece of all.