Why Ovechkin and the Capitals could finally win the Stanley Cup
As Alex Ovechkin nears another personal milestone, the Washington Capitals appear to be giving their franchise player a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup for the first time.
One goal away from passing Sergei Fedorov as the highest-scoring Russian-born player of all time, and adding another credit to his already illustrious resume, Ovechkin has been unable to lead his Capitals to a Stanley Cup championship since breaking into the league a decade ago.
It's a glaring omission on what will be a Hall of Fame career, but here's why the Capitals could become the last team standing as early as June.
Less reliance on Ovechkin
Heading into Friday's game against Calgary, Evgeny Kuznetsov leads the team in total points, Nicklas Backstrom is averaging a point per game since returning from offseason hip surgery, and John Carlson sits in a tie for fifth in points among defenseman.
On top of that, newcomers T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams are regularly making their presence felt on the scoresheet, while other depth players are also contributing to the team's fifth-ranked 3.13 goals per game.
So while Ovechkin remains on pace for yet another 50-goal season (at least), averaging an astounding 5.6 shots per game, the reality is that Washington is far from a one-man show.
Depth is key to any championship team, and the Capitals can check that off their list, pending injuries as the season moves forward.
Plus, Williams is bound to break Washington's streak of losing Game 7 to the New York Rangers. That's just what he does.
Improved team defense
On the flip side, the Capitals also sit fifth in the NHL in goals against per game, a ranking that has drastically improved over the past two seasons.
Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan has made a concerted effort to improve Washington's team defense since taking over the job two summers ago, beginning with the hiring of head coach Barry Trotz and the free-agent signings of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik.
While many would agree that plus-minus is an outdated stat, Ovechkin himself has seen his performance improve from minus-35 two seasons ago to a positive valuation under Trotz.
He's also posting his best possession numbers in seven years at even strength (56.92 Corsi For through 14 games), a clearer sign that he's driving play in the right direction. As a whole, the Capitals rank third in Corsi For at even strength, which is a good indicator of potential success.
The Capitals can score, but they're no longer a one-dimensional squad.
Braden Holtby's dominance
Finally, the Capitals boast one of the NHL's top goalies in Braden Holtby, who boasts a career save percentage of .921 in 191 starts - a number that rises to .936 in 34 playoff appearances.
Holtby established career bests in wins (41), goals-against average (2.22), shutouts (nine), save percentage (.923), and games played (73) in 2014-15, and signed a five-year, $30.5 million contract back in July, which shows that the Capitals believe they have the man that will lead them to the promised land.
With a strong team in front of him, Holtby is confident he can not only sustain that level of play, but improve on it.
"When you look at goaltending over the years, it seems like there are a few guys that stay (at the top) and a few that go up and down, and you want to be one that stays at the top," he told NHL.com this past summer. "That's a challenge in itself and one that I'm really looking forward to in my career.
"I'll keep improving and challenging myself and see how far we can go. Usually if the team is doing well, that makes individual things look better."
If the Capitals are going to win the Cup in the Ovechkin era, it'll likely have to come within Holtby's current contract window, with 2016 looking like the best shot of that happening to date.
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