Something had to give. The Capitals spent three seasons as the NHL's run-and-gun darlings, unafraid to win games 6-5 while entertaining fans. But last year's Stanley Cup playoff flameout against Montreal eventually forced changes that cut to the heart of their identity. Can a hockey team that lived to score goals become more responsible in its own end and yet still keep the offense humming? It's a tricky task the Caps are still trying to navigate.
So far, things are going a lot smoother on the defensive side. Washington has allowed just 2.45 goals a game, seventh in the NHL. The penalty kill is at 86 percent, second in the league, and the Caps have killed 94 of their last 107 short-handed situations since Nov. 24. Seven times in January alone Washington held its opponent to a single goal in regulation.
"We've improved in a lot of areas this year," Caps general manager George McPhee said. "Our goaltending has been really good. Our team defense has been really good this year. We've improved our penalty killing to No. 2 in the league. [That] bodes well for the big games."
But there is a flip side. The Caps won just four of those seven games in which they allowed one goal. That shows just how much the offense has struggled. At 2.71 goals per game, they are more than a goal off last year's 3.82 goals per game pace -- which was tops in the NHL. Part of that is the emphasis on their forwards' play in the neutral zone and a system that no longer leaves defensemen with as much one-on-one responsibility. Add in strong goaltending from Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby and you have a team that looks playoff ready on its blueline. Now it just needs the power play -- a dismal 12-for-96 since Nov. 24 -- to gather steam.
"We think that's the formula to win a lot this year and have success in the playoffs -- to be really stingy defensively and have game breakers and have your power play execute the way it should," McPhee said. "This is how we want to play this year."