NHL Handicapping: Capitals a Stanley Cup Contender?
by Trevor Whenham - 4/17/2013
In this short 48-game NHL regular season, it was easy to write off the Capitals after their disastrous start. It seemed obvious that a fast start was essential for a team to be a real contender because it would be too hard to dig out of a hole. At 2-8-1, Washington’s start was anything but fast. They weren’t dead just yet, though. To be a contender they needed to not just improve but completely reinvent themselves in order to make up the gap with so little time to do it.
Against all odds, that is just what they have done. Since that ugly start they were 21-9-1 heading into Monday night’s contest and had won seven in a row. It has been a remarkable turnaround, and it has lifted them from the cellar of the league to the top of their division. A playoff spot still isn’t a certainty given how tight things are this year, but the way they are playing they are in position not only to keep playing when the regular season ends but to host at least one playoff series.
The team is playing like an opponent that no one would want in the playoffs. But are they a legitimate Stanley Cup contender? The short answer is yes, and at 20/1 at Bovada to win the Stanley Cup, they provide some of the best value available. Why? Here are five good reasons:
At his best Ovechkin is the second-best player in the league behind only Sidney Crosby — and the gap between the two isn’t large. You wouldn’t guess it by how he has played for much of the two years before this one and how he played for the start of this year, though. Finally, however, Ovechkin is back to playing like we know he can. He has 18 goals in his last 15 games and now leads the NHL with 27 goals on the season. There is no reason that he shouldn’t lead the league in goals every year — or at least be in a battle with Steven Stamkos for the title — so it is a very positive sign that he is back in such form. There were some health issues along the way, but that wasn’t the problem here. He just wasn’t mentally engaged — he was pouting instead of playing. Now he’s having fun, and he has again been reminded of how good he is and what he is capable of. That is bad news for the rest of the league. For his team, though, that’s the best possible news. As much as any player in the league, the fate of the team depends on their leader and how he is performing. If he’s feeling good then feels good — they are 12-2-1 over the course of Ovechkin’s hot streak.
Oates was a great player, but he was unproven as a head coach before this season. He had only three years as an NHL assistant before being hired in the offseason. To make matters worse, because of the lockout he couldn’t work with his players at all before the abbreviated preseason. All he could do was work as co-head coach of the Hershey Bears in the AHL while waiting for a resolution to the standoff. That put Oates in by far the toughest situation of any coach. He didn’t know his players, they didn’t know him, and the team had serious attitude issues. They had tuned on Bruce Boudreau and gotten him fired, then they had made Dale Hunter so miserable he left. The inmates were running the asylum. On top of that, Oates wanted to change the philosophy of the team significantly, making them far more defensively responsible. It was a seemingly impossible task, and Oates seemed lost early. To his immense credit, though, he has turned things around. The team has completely bought into his system, they are listening to their coaching staff like they haven’t in years, and the results are obvious. Oates is dialed in, and he has this team believing that they can do anything. They know that Oates’ system works and that the harder they work the more success they will have. Oates has quickly transformed from a big liability to a massive asset. Two months ago I would have guessed he would have been fired at the end of the year. Now I’d argue he should be seriously considered for Coach of the Year.
Things aren’t ideal in the nets for the Capitals. Braden Holtby leads the way and hasn’t been exactly elite this year. Like the rest of the team, though, he has been much better recently. He’s also just 23 years old, so he’s learning as he goes and will benefit immensely from the confidence he is gaining now. Goaltending isn’t the reason the team can go deep, but it won’t stand in their way, either.
Last year the New Jersey Devils were lousy early in the season. In January, though, they refocused on their defensive intensity, got on a roll, and rode it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals before losing to the Kings. That seems like a good parallel here. The Capitals also learned that by focusing on defense first the offense would take care of itself and the wins would keep coming. The common link between the teams? Oates was an assistant for the Devils, and he gets a lot of credit from players and management for his role in the success. That is the biggest reason he got this job, and it is a big reason he can be expected to build credibility with this team as things progress.
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