At the midway point of the 2015-16 NHL campaign, one team stands alone.
The Washington Capitals sit comfortably at the top of the NHL table, five points clear of the second place Dallas Stars and with games in hand. They’ve allowed the fewest goals and possess the second best offence.
In a league where parity reigns, the Capitals are the one true juggernaut. Based on their first-half performance, this Capitals team is peerless.
Asked if this is the best team he’s ever coached on Thursday, Capitals head coach Barry Trotz didn’t hesitate.
“Yeah I think so,” Trotz responded. “We had some talented teams, couple teams in Nashville, but we probably weren’t as deep and we were always lacking that top-end centreman…. I’d say this is the most skilled team I’ve ever (coached).”
Capitals winger Justin Williams is a three-time Stanley Cup champion and a Conn Smythe winner. In recent years his crunch time performances have been so reliable that he’s earned himself the moniker "Mr. Game 7."
Though Williams insists that the Capitals aren’t getting ahead of themselves, he admits that when he sees a championship calibre team when he looks around the locker room.
“Certainly on paper and in the standings right now, all signs point to this being one of the best teams I’ve played on,” Williams told Sportsnet on Thursday. “That said, you learn a lot more about your team in April, May and June then you do in December, January…
“We have all the ingredients of a championship team. We’re right where we want to be, and hopefully we can do it.”
The Capitals are a buzz saw. They’re deep at every position. They have the NHL’s leading goal scorer, the Vezina Trophy front-runner, a top-line centre currently in the top-10 in NHL scoring, and six players on pace to post 50-point seasons.
Of course, Capitals fans have seen this show before. Though the quality of their hockey team is undeniable, fans in this city seem to have surprisingly little faith that this story ends with anything but disappointment.
As a tortured sports market, Washington D.C. doesn’t often get the attention that cities like Cleveland, or Minnesota, or Toronto do; but they probably should. No professional sports franchise in the District has won a title since the District’s pro football team won the Super Bowl in 1992.
“Fans here are pretty beaten down,” says lawyer Jon Press, a Capitals fan who started the popular Japers' Rinks blog way back in 2005. “First and foremost, the football team, one of the great franchises in NFL history, has turned into a laughing stock (though they rebounded this year). Prior to that they were just losing non-stop and embarrassing themselves on and off the field.
“The hockey team has never won a championship... The basketball team has been bad for a long time. The baseball team has had some spectacular underachievement in just 10 short years in Washington. They’ve really assimilated to the D.C. sports scene by choking a couple playoff series away…”
Like their D.C. sports brethren, the Capitals have enjoyed more than their fair share of playoff disappointments. Dating back to the early 90s, this is a franchise that has coughed up a dizzying number of 3-1 series leads in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Presidents’ Trophy winning team from the Bruce Boudreau era couldn’t close out the Montreal Canadiens in 2010, when Jaroslav Halak’s pitch perfect Dominik Hasek impersonation snuffed out the Capitals’ high-flying attack.
And again last season the Capitals were holding a 3-1 series lead and were just 101 seconds away from advancing to the Eastern Conference Final before Chris Kreider scored a game-tying goal. The New York Rangers would mount a successful comeback and win the series.
Will this year be different? Certainly with a truly elite NHL puck stopper and an excellent defence-corps, this is a more well rounded team than the 2010 Presidents’ Trophy winner. The players seem to believe that they have more mental toughness now, that they’re a more adaptable team, capable of successfully playing any type of style and winning any type of game.
“We’ve played in some high scoring, low scoring, comeback games, protect-the-lead games,” summarized Capitals defender Karl Alzner. “So we have wins in all different styles.
“The good teams need to have a little bit of a swagger to them,” Alzner continued. “We definitely don’t want to be arrogant, but we want to have confidence that we can win games in any situation.”
Williams echoed that sentiment on Thursday.
“I think this team can adapt to any type of situation,” he said.
The ace play-driving winger implied that the club has done some soul-searching. He seemed to suggest that past playoff failures might even be an advantage.
“I think as deflating as it probably was for them at the time, it probably helps,” Williams said of the club’s sordid playoff history. “It’s like ‘okay, we’ve done that before, let’s do something different then we did the last time because that didn’t work.’
“From everything I’ve heard of the last great regular seasons that they’ve had, is that they’ve gotten a little bit complacent, a little bit cocky, a little bit full of themselves. Right now we’re pushing forward, we’re not relaxing because we have a big lead in the standings. That’s what championship teams do.
“I’ve heard the culture wasn’t great,” Williams later added. “And the culture is changing now. We realize it’s not about how many you win in the regular season, it’s about winning the last one of the year.”
As for the long-suffering Capitals fans, as good as this team is, they can’t help but steel themselves for what feels like an inevitable blow.
“To the players, the history doesn’t mean anything, they don’t care that in 1992 the Caps blew a 3-1 lead to the Penguins,” Press explains. “Those are ghosts.
“To the fans though, it’s real. I do think there’s some fatalism and some waiting for the other shoe to drop, even when the team is doing so well.”