The Washington Capitals are in a league of their own this year. Their 84 points are the best in the league and the best in the Eastern Conference by an incredible nine points. Only Pittsburgh has scored more goals - they lead by just one - and no team has allowed fewer. It's not tough to win when you have a goal differential of just less than 1.25 per game.
They have shifted into another gear lately, too - especially at home where they have scored at least five goals in each of their last nine games. They are by far the class of the NHL right now.
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Of course, this is the Capitals we are talking about, so by now their fans and backers have learned the very hard way that this team has done a very lousy job of translating regular-season form to the postseason. So, is this year different? Or will the Caps again waste a strong regular season with a too early playoff departure?
Here are six factors to consider when pondering those questions:
The past: Washington is on track to cruise to the Presidents' Trophy, awarded to the team with the best regular-season record. That is nothing new for them. In fact, it will be the third time since 2010, and the second year in a row, that that has happened. And it has led to nothing so far. In 2010 they lost to Montreal in seven games in the first round in one of the bigger upsets in memory. Last year they survived the first round but then were beaten by Pittsburgh in six games in round two.
They have won their division six of the last nine seasons but have never been beyond the second round of the playoffs in that time. This team has made a science of underwhelming when it matters most. The core is largely the same, but there have been some key changes this year. So, why should we believe this year will be different? Or are we destined for yet more disappointment?
Coaching: Barry Trotz, who is in his third year with Washington, is an excellent coach. Until three seasons ago he was the only coach Nashville had ever known, and he did a great job of forming that franchise. He is obviously a strong fit here in Washington.
He has a problem, though - in nine playoff appearances he has won just three series and has never survived the second round. In that sense, then, he is unfortunately a good fit for Washington as well.
He's a solid 658-523 in the regular season but just 32-44 in the payoffs. In terms of meshing with this team or game planning, I don't have a single doubt about Trotz in this spot. He needs to prove, though, that he can get past this serious hole in his record.
Ovechkin: Alexander Ovechkin is the best pure goal scorer in the NHL since Wayne Gretzky. He's still playing quite well this year, but with 26 goals and 25 assists through 56 games he is going to fall well short of his recent standards - he has scored at least 50 each of the last three years and had 32 in 48 games in the strike year before that. I'm not worried, though. With just three more assists he will have his best total since 2011, and he is making a notable commitment to play a more rounded game this year.
An issue with this team for a long time is that Ovechkin is a very strong character, and he tends not to show a lot of flexibility when it comes to bending to the wishes of his coaches. Trotz seems to have gotten through to him in a way that no one else has, and that could pay major dividends into the postseason. No other single player impacts his team and their fate more than Ovie has over the years, so his current mindset is a major factor.
Between the pipes: Braden Holtby is one of the best goaltenders in the league right now - I put him comfortably in the Top 3. Philipp Grubauer has seen a relatively robust 15 games of action this year in backup, and all he has done is post a save percentage and goals against average better than Holtby's stellar ones. You need goaltending to win a Cup. No team is any better positioned.
Staying sharp: This is perhaps the biggest challenge the team has. They are good and they know it. They will be the top seed with minimal effort. They don't care about the regular season beyond what it means for their playoff seeding. This is a team with one goal. Despite that, they need to make sure that they stay on track and stay healthy so that when the games do matter they are ready.
Betting performance: When a team is 39-11-6, they are obviously going to be favored a lot, but it is not surprising that they are good on the moneyline despite that. Washington is currently third best in the league on that front. They have gone "under" the total 18 times and "over" 25, so they are a profitable totals teams as well.
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