Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

December: The Washington Capitals' Turning Point?

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December may be a turning point for the Washington Capitals, who appear to be overcoming their inconsistency. It’s been difficult to pinpoint the source of their wavering reliability, especially when factoring in the ever-changing defensive pairings, streaky penalty kill, and swift response goals. However, one thing is evident: the Caps are finding a steady groove, which has helped them compile a record of 4-2-1 for the month so far.

Granted, the Capitals have taken three of those seven games to a shootout–hardly an ideal situation, despite their strength in the skills competition. But when they’re playing in regulation, or even overtime, they’ve shown improvement at both ends of the ice.

In their own zone, the Caps have avoided getting cornered in the boards. They’re also stronger in evading neutral zone traps and are preventing odd-man rushes. The addition of Dmitry Orlov to the lineup has strengthened Washington’s defense corps, with some nice offensive perks.

As a whole, the defensemen have been playing a solid–but not great–game. They’re becoming more reliable, which has long been their main concern. However, things can get ugly for them very quickly. From losing a player they’re covering to granting their opponents easy takeaways, the blueliners still have work to do. Some have been on ice for a frighteningly high amount of goals against, like Mike Green.

Take a look at the Capitals roster and you’ll see far more minuses than pluses, especially among defensemen. While  plus-minus shouldn’t be treated as the be-all and end-all of determining a player’s performance, it is imperative that we see more positive numbers all around. Bear in mind the ratings of offensively inclined players will be even less accurate, particularly among Washington’s forwards, who have been excelling as of late.

It’s fair to say the forwards have been compensating for the team’s defensive shortcomings. In terms of goals for, Washington is seventh in the league. Alex Ovechkin has continued to be a monster with a league-best 28 goals in 34 games. 12 of those tallies have come on the power play, which also appears to be out of its brief slump.

Seven games have been played in December, and the Caps have scored with the man advantage in all but one. With a conversion rate of 24.8%, their offense has received a huge boost. That’s not to say the Caps can’t score at even strength, though. For much of the season, they relied on their power play–and Ovechkin–as the primary means of goal scoring.

Is that a recipe for success? In the short term, maybe–but when its power play was stuck in a rut, Washington suffered tremendously. Yet, since even-strength goals became the norm, the Capitals have seen their record improve to 18-13-3: a far cry from when they struggled to remain above .500.

There’s no contesting that Ovi is a pure sniper, but the Caps have certainly reaped the benefits of a well-rounded offense. For starters, the chemistry between Mikhail Grabovski and Eric Fehr has contributed to a handful of tallies from the second line; Joel Ward is having a career year; and we’ve seen Karl Alzner and Co. notch some slick, unexpected goals.

Now, all the Capitals need is for a goalie to light the lamp. But their three goaltenders: Michal Neuvirth, Braden Holtby, and Philipp Grubauer still play their best between the pipes. Sure, Holtby’s recent performances have been lackluster, but he is still a capable goaltender who can both bail the Caps out–or be bailed out by one of two stellar backups.

Whether it comes to goaltending or goal scoring, the Washington Capitals have shown a vast improvement over the past three weeks. Dare I say they’re becoming a consistently good hockey team? For now, seeing that their upcoming games are the only true test of maintaining that elusive consistency.

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