Sports

The Capitals Are Dominating the NHL—Now Comes the Hard Part

Washington has been the best team in the NHL all season, which is nothing new. The challenge, as in all the years before, is carrying that into the playoffs.

by Alexander Goot
Mar 11 2016, 3:23pm

Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Let's talk, for a moment, about goals. We all have them, and the Washington Capitals have them, too. Lots of them: 217 so far this season. Before we go any further, it's worth taking a look at two of them in particular.

The first features Alex Ovechkin, one of the most impossibly skilled hockey players in the world, going end-to-end, over, around, and through the New York Rangers to score an overtime game-winner. The second is Dmitry Orlov, a capable but hardly famous defenseman, scoring the team's sixth goal in a blowout victory. He scores mostly because the Colorado Avalanche lost track of the puck.

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There is, undeniably, something delightful about the contrast. One is a demonstration of sublime athleticism approaching perfection, a display of speed, agility, precision, and awareness that renders the word "highlight" inadequate. The other is the sort of fluky, right-place-right-time score that anyone could manage, provided they had a baseline ability to stay upright while wearing skates.

The beauty of these Capitals is that they achieve both these goals, among their many others. They are fantastic and they are fortunate, and they are everything in between. They boast an attack that is as balanced as it is prolific, and is matched only by their smothering defense. Head Coach Barry Trotz has built a deep and cohesive team around Ovechkin, one of the most gifted star athletes in the world; the entire unit is anchored by goaltender Braden Holtby, who continues to elevate his game. As a result, all three of those men are serious contenders for postseason awards, and Washington has an unassailable lock on the Presidents' Trophy. It's hard to imagine how the Capitals could be doing better at achieving even the most ambitious preseason goals.

Naturally, none of this is even close to good enough.

When you're very good at hockey. Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It is impossible to discuss the triumphs of the Washington Capitals, this late in the season, without eventually coming around to the team's postseason history. From 2008 to 2013, the Capitals qualified for the playoffs in six straight seasons, won five division titles, finished with 100-plus points three times—and failed to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs even once in that span. The most successful campaign, a 2009-10 season that saw the team win a franchise-record 54 games, ended inauspiciously, when the top-seeded Caps blew a 3-1 series lead and fell to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.

None of this, of course, has anything to do with this current Capitals team, which has basically dominated this NHL season from wire to wire. A handful of players remain from that playoff collapse, of course—not just Ovechkin but star center Nicklas Backstrom, veteran winger Jason Chimera, defenseman Karl Alzner, and others—but years of roster churn have transformed the team into something different. On most nights, this new team is quite beautiful to behold.

When the Capitals are at their best, it is as if the other team is not even present on the ice. That's one thing for Ovechkin, whose size, strength, and impossible motor enables him to execute whatever he can visualize with his beautiful, if slightly off-kilter mind. But it's equally impressive to watch his teammates, the lesser gods who make up the remainder of the squad, communicate and coalesce with such clarity of purpose that the entire group truly begins to resemble a single, highly evolved organism. This is a team that, to a man, can cut things off at the point of attack and transition immediately to a swift, precise, relentless offensive push.

Indeed, for all their undeniable skill, the sheer stick-to-it-iveness of the Caps is worthy of commendation. It's what powered their rally on Wednesday night in Los Angeles, in which they closed a 3-0 deficit with three goals in the third period. T.J. Oshie and Backstrom kept Washington in the game with a pair of second- and third-chance goals, before Orlov tied things up with a nifty backhand move through traffic.

The Capitals outshot the Kings, one of the Western Conference's top teams, 18 to 6 in that third period, a perfect example of their ability to overwhelm their adversaries when firing on all cylinders. It was dazzling, but guaranteed absolutely nothing with regards to the final result; Jeff Carter's overtime goal enabled Los Angeles to escape with a 4-3 win.

The good and happy hockey men are very good friends! Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The loss was, in some sense, a reminder that Washington's uncertain postseason prospects have nothing to do with the jerseys they wear, and everything to do with the game they play. Only two Presidents' Trophy winners in the past twelve seasons have also lifted the Stanley Cup. No matter how well it is played, stick and puck remains an erratic game, and a hot goaltender or a cold power play or a mistimed line change can be the difference between victory and defeat. For fans who love the frenetic, free-for-all atmosphere in which anything seems possible, it is a blessing. But for a team like the Capitals, who have been so consistently strong for so many years, and in such a reasonable way, that unreason can only be a curse. They have achieved supremacy in a sport that does not particularly reward it.

With all of their victories over the past five months, the Capitals have ensured that there are really only a few possible reactions to what they manage to accomplish in the playoffs. A loss in the early rounds will be considered devastating, another brutal choke job. Falling in either the conference or Stanley Cup finals would be a deep disappointment, too—a failure, once again, to climb the mountain. Even a championship would be, in some sense, as much a relief as a triumph, a collective opportunity for a franchise to finally exhale, having proved once and for all that it can play in the playoffs. That is the only goal remaining for a Washington team that has achieved success by every other metric.

But it would truly be a shame if a fixation on the playoffs prevented us all from appreciating one of the greatest shows in sports. Some 3,000 miles away, fans are giddily enjoying Golden State's hardcourt jubilee. That's a testament to their brilliance, surely, but it's also in some measure because everyone has confidence that the Warriors will be there for the money rounds. They've already won it all, of course, but the Splash Brothers also don't have to lose sleep over "puck luck."

If hockey were more fair, or at least more predictable, we could have as much faith in these Capitals. As it is, we ought to cherish them, to enjoy every moment of their excellence before short series make them vulnerable once more. They are a team that does everything right, despite no guarantee of reward. That's the game, but it's a goal with some dignity to it.