Even after losing in a shootout Monday night, there isn’t a team in the NHL hotter than the Washington Capitals.
By getting to overtime against the Arizona Coyotes, the Capitals earned one standings point rather than coming away empty-handed if it were a regulation loss. At 30 points (13-2-4), not only do they lead the league, they’re off to a hotter start than they’ve ever had during the Alex Ovechkin era.
In that span, the Capitals‘ previous best start through 20 games was 29 points off 14-5-1 starts in both 2010-11 and 2015-16. No matter the result Wednesday night when the Capitals play their 20th game at the Philadelphia Flyers, they’ve already surpassed that marker. (The best 20-game start in franchise history was a 15-5-0 start in 1991-92.)
The so-called “quarter pole” of the season is an ideal time to step back and evaluate teams, and right now, there’s not much for Capitals fans not to like. Washington leads the NHL with 76 goals, 11 more than the closest competitor; the goaltending tandem of Braden Holtby and Ilya Samsonov is playing better after Holtby’s shaky start to the year; and veterans like John Carlson and Evgeny Kuznetsov are on fire.
But how important is a hot start, really? At this time two years ago, the Capitals suffered a lopsided loss to the Colorado Avalanche in their 20th game, yielding a 10-9-1 start that was disappointing relative to expectations. Then-coach Barry Trotz had a frank, emotional discussion with his players in the locker room, and though there were still some peaks and valleys ahead, that team ended up getting hot at the right time and winning the Stanley Cup.
By contrast, those Capitals teams from 2010-11 and 2015-16 fell in the second round of the playoffs. Or take last year’s Tampa Bay Lightning team for a more exaggerated example: 14-5-1 at the quarter pole, a record-tying 62 wins at the end of the regular season, but not a single postseason win despite massive expectations.
“The only thing we care about is getting ourselves into the playoffs,” Nicklas Backstrom said Tuesday. “As we all know, it doesn’t really matter if you finish first or fourth. It doesn’t matter. You gotta have a good group, you have to play good at the same time and you gotta have a hot goalie. That’s what it’s all about.
“But,” he added, “up until April, I think it’s real important to collect as many points as you can and make sure you put yourself in a good spot.”
There’s no doubt the Capitals have achieved that. What’s separated this 20-game start from prior years has been their ability to scrape out a point by forcing games to overtime. That’s what they had to do Monday after falling behind 3-0 to the Coyotes. Kuznetsov picked up a pair of goals to pull his team back in, and they converted at 6-on-5 at the end of regulation to salvage the point.
“The regular season is a long year. You got 82 games,” Tom Wilson said after the game. “It’s impossible to have your best game every night, as much as the coach might say we’ve got to have our best game to win in this league. Sometimes you don’t. I don’t think tonight we had our best game, and you find a way to get a point. It’s just that consistency and that character of staying in there and doing what you can to pull a point or two out of these type of nights.”
The Capitals‘ resilience is a valuable quality to possess when looking toward the many months of regular-season hockey ahead.
“Things are gonna go south for us. And things, like we talked about, you’re not always gonna be at your best,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “For me it’s important that you understand that. You can’t affect what had happened in the past, and let’s move forward … That’s been a constant message with our team, is continuing to never quit on us in a situation and believe in what we’re doing — that if we do it long enough, then we give ourselves a chance to get back in there and get one point.”
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