The Caps are the most talked about team in the league as they hold the dominating lead. Nearly every press report references the stunning control of Braden Holtby over the crease. And this weekend Nicklas Backstrom finally got his due with an appearance at the NHL All-Star Games, walking the carpet with teammate Evgeny Kuztnetsov, who is quickly gaining his own notoriety. The Caps have become more than just a show-case for the talent of Alexander Ovechkin.
With a 35-8-4 record returning from the All-Star break, the Caps will soon begin a series of games against Western Conference leaders—most who they have yet to play this season. They are home for a good bit of February to meet with several Eastern Conference teams starting with the Panthers. Come mid-month, they take off to Nashville and will finally meet the Stars in Dallas, who they spent the first half of the season challenging for first place in the NHL. They end the month in Chicago playing current second place defending Cup champion Blackhawks.
Here’s a quick look at some the challenges the boys face. One common thread in all these challenges is the goalie match-up against Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer. We’ve got the best team in the league, but the Western Conference clearly has some standout goal tenders combined with scoring machines.
Again with the Flyers—any maybe Michal Neuvirth. He is back to leading the league in save percentage (.933). He has won the last three games when in the net; however, there is some question about his health…no surprise for Neuvy. The Flyers have a small chance of making it to the playoffs, but they always give the Caps a run for their money. Jakub Voracek put a hurting on the Caps last time they came to town and is the rising star of the team.
The Panthers have clawed their way up to the top and will be coming in from Nashville after a weekend of festivities that focused on them and Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo. They lead the Atlantic Division with a 29-15-5 record. They have won their last three games with “Strombone” in the net. He has four shutouts this season. Jonathan Huberdeau leads the team in points (34 with 8 goals & 28 assists). Jagr follows with 33 points and sits behind Riley Smith (16g) with 15 goals. (BTW: Kuzy did score on Luaongo during the Games)
The Dallas Stars have had an amazing season so far and have some of the best players in the league on their team right now. Jaime Benn is second on the charts with overall points (58) as well as second in goals with 28—ahead of Ovi simply because he has played one game more. Tyler Seguin follows closely behind with 53 points (25 goals & 28 assists). They each have three game winning goals on their record. This could be the most challenge of all match-ups.
LA has found its way back to the top of the Pacific Division with a 30-16-3 record. The Kings not so secret weapon against the Caps will be Jonathan Quick who ranks third in the league with wins (26 in 41 games) and has had three shutouts so far this season. He is the player often credited with leading the Kings to two Stanley Cup wins. Oh, but the Caps do have a slight advantage now that two of their winning players (Richards and Williams) have moved to Washington and can give the coach some insight into what to expect.
The Blackhawks want to keep the Cup in Chicago. Despite all the booing of Patrick Kane during the All-Star Competition and Games, he is having another stellar year, leading in points, goals, and assists; (73p, 30g, and 43a) and a +22. There is hope though—he failed to score against Carolina or the Panthers in recent weeks proving he can be undone. And the Caps found their weak spot in October sending them home after a 4-1 loss. John Carlson scored in that game and now that he is back the Caps have an improved defensive play—add Brooks Orpik and the threat could be minimized.
With February full of first-time meetings with leading Western Conference teams, the Caps will be facing some of the best teams in the league. Are they up to the challenge? Having a coach that has played in the West for most of his career, and new team members with years of experience in the Conference, we think they will continue to surprise everyone and keep moving closer to the Cup challenge!