|Ovie salutes the crowd after the Caps' win in the Winter Classic|
So, Caps fans, here we are at the midpoint of our season, with 41 games officially in the record books. It's been a wacky one in many ways, from the losing streak, to record f-bomb counts, to the Winter Classic, this Caps season has left us with memories of the good, the bad, and the very ugly. It has transformed more casual DC sports fans into serious Caps fans with events like 24/7 and community skates. But first and foremost, it has seen the Caps as a group mature and become a better hockey team.
That's right, I said it, the Capitals are better this year than they were last year. They are not going to run away with anything this season. Alex Ovechkin has no shot at catching Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos for the Rocket Richard, Art Ross, or Hart Memorial Trophies. Nicklas Backstrom is not going to reach 100 assists, as some people (including me) thought he had a shot at. Mike Green is not going to come close to the Norris Trophy. So how can I say the Caps are better?
The losing streak. I was as nervous as anyone during that streak. I had trouble sleeping, I was antsy, I hated it. Not only because of the fact that the Caps were losing, but also because they had never gone through anything close to that under Bruce Boudreau, and I was genuinely worried that they were going to be able to pull out of it. But guess what? They did. They are adapting to Bruce Boudreau's new system slowly, but the results are slowly rounding into shape, holding high octane offenses like Pittsburgh (twice), Tampa Bay, and Ottawa to two or fewer goals in the last month. They are getting outstanding goaltending from Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth now, something that they were not getting during November and December. With the exception of last night, the Caps are scoring goals with promising regularity, not blowing anyone out of the water, but scoring enough to win. The Caps offensive stars are sacrificing their stats for the good of the team, because the Caps were not going to win a championship with the style they played last year. Even if they had beaten Montreal, a good defense like Philly, Chicago, or Vancouver would have shut them down. So Bruce Boudreau is employing the oldest trick in the book: if you can't beat them, join them. Bruce can do this and still win because he still has the offensive talent that he does, but the days of the Caps winning 7-4 and 6-3 with regularity are over. And trust me, Caps fans, that is most definitely a good thing.
What else can we be thankful for heading into the new year?
1) The Winter Classic. Besides from being the best event of the year, the Capitals stuck it to their biggest rivals on the biggest stage the NHL has to offer besides the playoffs. They came out in hostile environment in awful weather, gave up the first goal, but then battled back to take home a huge win for everyone involved.
2) John Carlson. Very rarely does a defenseman of 74's caliber come around. Carlson has the ability to be just as electric as Mike Green on offense, but also has found the balance between offense and defense that Green is finding right now, almost five years earlier. And the scary thing is that Carlson is only going to get better. If the Caps' D stays healthy, they are going to be tough come playoff time.
3) The goalies. The Capitals have two young, excellent goalies, who, even though they are total opposites on the ice in terms of playing style, they both stop the puck, have the confidence of the team playing in front of them, and they are good friends off of the ice. The Caps have an embarrassment of riches at the goaltending position, especially with Braden Holtby hanging out in the AHL.
4) Brooks Laich. This grinder has made his name on the Caps the last two years and has emerged as one of the best leaders in NHL. Brooksie commands respect in the locker room and on the ice by the way he carries himself and how hard he plays every shift. The NHL needs more players like Brooks Laich, and I sure hope the Caps hold on to him, because they need him.
5) The management. George McPhee and Ted Leonsis have never wavered from their plan over the last year, not panicking and doing something stupid after the loss to Jaro Halak nor during the losing streak, such as firing Bruce Boudreau or making a big trade. It is going to keep all their savvy to keep this unit together, but I think they can do it.
Caps are off today before going back to practice tomorrow and Friday and then hosting the Panthers on Saturday in a huge game for the boys in red. Good afternoon from the desk of 24/7. Peace, love, and Red.