Washington Capitals Have Excellent Chance to Pull Away


The Washington Capitals are already off to their most successful start in franchise history. Could it conceivably get even better moving forward?

The Washington Capitals find themselves in prime position entering the Christmas break. Their 52 points put them eight points ahead of the New York Rangers, nine ahead of the third place New York Islanders in the Metropolitan Division, and nine points ahead of the Atlantic Division leading Montreal Canadiens. The beauty of this situation is that the Capitals have three games in hand on both the Rangers and the Canadiens and two in hand over the Islanders. 

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The Washington Capitals will enter an important eight game portion of their schedule after Christmas. It is vital for a variety of reasons. The first five games of this stretch match Washington up with either struggling or bottom of the pack teams in the Eastern Conference. The Capitals will host the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday, a team that has lost 9 of 10 beginning with a home defeat at the hands of these same Caps on December 3rd. Montreal has scored more than two goals just once in that stretch and that was in a 3-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators.

The Washington Capitals will then embark on a home-and-home with the Buffalo Sabres, an undoubtedly improved squad, albeit one that still can’t find any kind of consistency. This is largely in part due to the lack of a true starting netminder. Robin Lehner was brought in for this purpose but has been injured for almost the entire season to this point. Buffalo has been a team that gives Washington a run for their money in most of their matchups.

Four of the next five games following that mini-series are against divisional opponents. All five games will be on the road. They will face off with the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh for the second time in a little over a week before facing off with the Columbus Blue Jackets. After a game against the surging Bruins in Boston, the Washington Capitals will spend a few days in the Big Apple to face the New York Islanders for the first time this year. They will then play at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers for the third time this year.

This eight game stretch could be a defining one for the Washington Capitals season. If they play to their ability, there is no reason that they can’t win at least five or six of those games, especially given the struggling competition that they will face for the majority of the time.

However, looking a little bit deeper into the recent play of the Washington Capitals, there is some cause for concern which may slow down to torrid pace that the Capitals have been on this season.

To put it simply, this chart shows that the Capitals possession numbers have been taking a pretty heavy turn toward the negative as of late. It should be noted that this trend goes beyond just the past ten games.

This next one delves into the relationship between each team’s scoring chances and their overall “luck.” As you can see, the Washington Capitals are hovering around a PDO of 102. That likely isn’t sustainable over the long-term. Being anywhere in that white middle section would be more sustainable, though it is still promising that Washington is hanging around 50% of scoring chances for, while a team like the Rangers has an even higher PDO with a much lower SCF%.

This number will almost assuredly come down for the Caps at some point, possibly in the near future. I have to add an unbiased point in here, and that is that much of this same material was being thrown around about the New York Rangers after their hot start, and they have been struggling mightily for weeks now. The Capitals shouldn’t expect such a drastic change in results because they do have the better team by most accounts and are notably less “lucky” than the Rangers. However, the Rangers rode hot goaltending over much of that hot stretch, much like Washington has been.

This is the real question. You’d hope that this ends up being somewhere in the middle, whether you attribute it to the loss of Brooks Orpik or Braden Holtby being one of the league’s best goaltenders or whatever other reasoning you can come up with. Just about everyone recognizes that the Washington Capitals are at the least a good team. Probably not “close to 130 points” good, but they are the class of the Eastern Conference so far. When they do come back to earth they will still be in a favorable position.

But this article is not about all of the advanced statistics, it is about the prime opportunity for the Washington Washington Capitals to take complete control of the conference if they can continue winning games by any means necessary.

“When it comes down to winning,” Barry Trotz said, via the Washington Post, “we’re learning that it’s important to win and doing it different ways and following the game plan and not just say, ‘Okay, we’re going to stick to what we were doing.’ There’s a good group of guys that understand that, and they’re leading the way.”

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If the Capitals can continue doing just that, winning in different ways in different situations, the team will continue to see success. With six of those eight aforementioned games coming on the road, it could serve as a major confidence boost on a team already brimming with it. It goes without saying that divisional games are not easy, no matter who you play. Add in the fact that all of these divisional games are on the road, and you have a recipe for several very, very close games.

The games against Buffalo, Montreal and Boston will prove difficult for the Caps for several different reasons. Buffalo is a team on the outside looking in, and needs a very strong run out of this break to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. Montreal’s struggles have been displayed very prominently, and will be looking to get back on track ahead of the Winter Classic, where they will face the rival Bruins. Those same Bruins will host the Washington Capitals in their first game following the Classic. Boston has arguably been just as hot as the Capitals as of late.

What lies in the Caps favor is that most of their best players are heating up. The entire top line of Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom have been scorching hot as of late. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Justin Williams have been very good all season, and John Carlson is in the conversation with the league’s best young defensemen. Braden Holtby has been incredible all season, and a couple of subpar efforts against the Lightning and the Rangers are no major cause for concern.

If the Washington Capitals can remain around eight points ahead of second place in the division after this stretch, it will be a major victory. After they play the Rangers on January 9th, the two teams will be even in terms of games played. No longer will Washington be able to claim the benefit of having games in hand.

Next: Caps Show Resiliency Heading Into Christmas

We are sure to learn a lot more about the Washington Capitals after these upcoming games. The team will be exactly halfway through their schedule at that point. One thing is for sure: The Washington Capitals are a darn good hockey team, and should they find a way to continue their immense success over the next few weeks, there may be no stopping them.