Alex Ovechkin sees two big differences between this Washington Capitals team and the previous editions: goaltending and maturity. Both can carry them a long way.
Washington entered Monday’s 2-0 victory over the Sabres as the hottest team in the NHL, winners of seven straight and 14 of the last 16. The Capitals had a better streak back in 2010, winning a franchise-record 14 in a row under former coach Bruce Boudreau.
Back then, winning was just something the Caps did for fun. Now they do it with a business-like attitude.
“Back then we were young kids, not experienced and we just go out there and have fun and play hockey,” captain Alex Ovechkin said in First Niagara Center. “If we win, we win. As soon as we win 10 games, Bruce came to us and said, ‘Hey, we can set the record, and go ahead and do it.’ We just do that kind of stuff, and it was fun.
“But right now we’re more mature. We understand right now it’s all about the business and get as many points as we can.”
The Capitals (27-6-2) have vaulted to the top of the Eastern Conference by beating teams with a complete game. They rank second in scoring at 3.1 goals per game, and they lead the NHL by allowing only 2.1.
“We have a pretty good system that allows us to play good defensively and obviously good offensively, as well,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We’re trying to just be good every night and be the team we want to be.”
The Capitals have been good for a long time, ranking fourth with 373 victories since 2007, but they’ve yet to advance past the second round of the playoffs during the Ovechkin era.
“That’s why I shouldn’t say too much because we haven’t had the playoff success,” said Backstrom, who noticed an improved system last season under new coach Barry Trotz. “We made a step in the right direction last year the way we played compared to other years. We’re trying to get better every day, trying to improve and hopefully we can learn from our mistakes from previous years.
“Right now we have a good feeling in the locker room, and hopefully we can build off that.”
Goaltender Braden Holtby is helping provide the good feeling. The 26-year-old is 23-4-1 with a .932 save percentage and 1.92 goals-against average.
“Every year we have a chance to be in the playoffs and a chance to win the Cup,” Ovechkin said. “What’s good about this team is we have one of the best goalies in the league and a hot goalie in Holts. We know if we’re going to make a mistake he’s there and he’s going to save it. A good team, a goalie is 75 percent of the success. I think years before we don’t have that guy.”
The Capitals were Dan Bylsma’s biggest rival during his years with Pittsburgh, and the Sabres’ coach joins Washington’s stars in seeing a difference with this year’s club.
“They have to be the best team in the league at this point with the way they’re playing,” Bylsma said. “Back in ‘08-09, they were the scariest team to play against. I think this team is probably a better defensive team and a better structured team.”
Zemgus Girgensons appreciates the praise Bylsma has heaped upon his line for its defensive work. That doesn’t mean the left winger is happy.
Girgensons, center Johan Larsson and right wing Brian Gionta have been drawing tougher assignments recently, like a one-on-one matchup with Chicago’s Jonathan Toews.
They’ve had success shutting others down, but they haven’t created for themselves. Girgensons entered Wednesday’s game with two goals this season, while Gionta had three and Larsson just one.
“We’ve done a good job so far as a shutdown line, but at the same time I feel like our line has to create more offense. We can’t just play defense,” Girgensons said. “The top lines usually are not the best at defense, so if you get in their end you can spend some quality time there.”
Brooks Orpik grew up in Buffalo, but he became a man in Pittsburgh while playing under Bylsma. Orpik, who plays for Washington, missed his 21st straight game with a lower-body injury.
“There wasn’t a defenseman in the time that I coached Brooks that didn’t see him as the example,” Bylsma said. “He’s been that example of how to play and how to play the right way and how to prepare the right way.”