Editor’s note: Cold As Ice correspondent Phil Stacey takes a look at the Washington Capitals, who are currently the team to beat in the East.
We Generation Xers love our nostalgia. One of my personal favorites was the “Schoolhouse Rock!” series of animated shorts that ran on ABC from the mid-1970s well into the 1980s.
Of all the catchy vignettes they taught us about science, civics, mathematics and how to hanker for a hunk o’ cheese, the best was “I’m Just A Bill.” It explained how a bill, in simple terms, becomes a law, going from Capitol Hill all the way to the President’s desk.
The song of the same name was catchy, funky (it was 1976, duh) and stuck in your head. The bill sang of the “long, long journey” that he had to make before becoming a law, and how he “hoped and prayed” that he would achieve his goal.
The District of Columbia’s hockey team, the Capitals, was in its embryonic years when that bit first came out, a third-year franchise that suffered for many years. It took eight seasons to make the playoffs and another seven before they reached their first conference final, getting swept in four straight by the Bruins in 1990.
The Capitals finally reached the Stanley Cup finals eight years later, only to be swept by a powerhouse Detroit team at the peak of its power. There been other seasons in the nearly two decades since then that looked promising, but never reached fruition.
But now, something’s different. And that’s a wonderful thing if you follow or enjoy hockey coming out of the nation’s capital.
The Capitals are no longer Ovechkin, Backstrom, flotsam and jetsam. They are a machine in every sense of the phrase as it pertains to hockey: deep, talented, speedy, aggressive technically sound, oozing in fortitude and hungry to finally capture Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Following Tuesday night’s 3-2 win over the Bruins in Boston—coupled with Dallas’ loss to the Rangers in New York—the Capitals now stand atop the NHL standings. If there is a better, more complete team on the circuit right now…well, then, the 1977-78 Canadiens just got reincarnated.
Washington knows how to put the hammer down: the Caps are 13-0-0 when leading after one period and 20-0-1 holding the advantage after 40 minutes. They have a virtual brick wall standing in goal in Braden Holtby, who shouldn’t only be the frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy but also, along with Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson, the Hart as Most Valuable Player. He gobbles up potential rebounds like a kid stealing leftover cake at a birthday party, meaning if you don’t beat him with a clean shot, you simply aren’t beating him.
And he doesn’t face many clean shots, because his teammates do a great job packing it in defensively and protecting their prized commodity. The pairing of Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen are a ferocious duo; less heralded blueliners like Dmitry Orlov, Aaron Ness, Nate Schmidt and Taylor Chorney do the job meticulously without flash or much accolades. When injured John Carlson and Brooks Orpik return to the lineup shortly, a very good unit becomes elite.
This is arguably the best offensive team Washington has ever iced—and not purely because of its goal-scoring acumen. Ovechkin’s brilliance in the offensive zone doesn’t need to be rehashed here; what’s worth noting, however, is that he’s perhaps a more responsible three-zone player now, at age 30, than he ever has been in his career. When in the past would you have trusted him on the ice in the final minute holding a one-goal lead, as he was Tuesday night against Boston? The modern-day Mike Bossy of goal scoring has realized it takes a complete game to become a complete player and, as an addendum, for his team to reach its zenith.
Character guys added to the mix like T.J. Oshie—who skates right wing on the top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom—and Mr. Game 7, Justin Williams, have already paid enormous dividends. Young talents like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and Marcus Johansson help complement the overall picture; so does a rough-and-tumble presence like Tom Wilson on the third line.
Add the whole package up, and you’ve got the most talented and most likely team to emerge from the Eastern Conference when springtime rolls around.
The bugaboo, of course, is that something has always seemed to derail the Washington Express from reaching its desired destination. What if Holtby falters in the postseason? What if Ovechkin reverts back to his old ways of effort in the offensive zone only? What if a key injury (or three) causes the wheels to loosen significantly, if not fall off altogether?
No. Not this season. At least it doesn’t feel like it. This team has all the makings of a Stanley Cup champion (along with Los Angeles, perhaps Dallas and, of course, Chicago). I’d expect the Capitals to continue surging forward; for general manager Brian MacLellan to add a forward or two and a depth defenseman at the deadline; and for hockey lifer/coach Barry Trotz to get a true shot at the silver chalice for perhaps the first time ever.
The Washington Capitals are that good, folks. Don’t expect them to falter anytime soon.