DC Sports Day

Ovechkin Gets His Thirtieth Goal, As Talk of a Potential Stanley Cup Gets Louder in DC

Rangers

The Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers by a score of 3-2 on this Super Bowl Sunday afternoon, making it the first team to hit 80 points this season. Alex Ovechkin scored his thirtieth goal too, making it 11 seasons in a row that the Caps captain has reached that lofty plateau. With 31 games left in the regular season, it is very possible that Ovechkin will pot 50 by early April–for the third year in a row.

Washington is currently the prognosticators leading candidate for the Stanley Cup, something that no one in the DC area has heard in a long time. The question is why do the experts believe that the Caps are the favorites? It is easy to say that goaltender Braden Holtby is the reason–going into this afternoon, he had a 2.06 GAA and 92.8%. And he now has 33 of Washington’s 38 wins.

There is no question that Holtby has been superb, a Vezina trophy candidate. But there are other players on this team that have provided much of the difference this season and are getting less notice.

Evgeny Kuznetsov is a forward playing at the top of his game. A long awaited and highly regarded prospect until he came over from the KHL during the 2013-14 season, Kuznetsov was drafted in the first round in 2010, 26th overall. He was already playing in the KHL as an 18 year-old. Although he played 80 games in a Caps’ uniform last season, it has not been until this season that Kuznetsov has reached his prime. Currently, the team’s leading scorer, the 23 year-old plays on the second line and is a regular on the power play. More of a playmaker than a goal scoring center, Kuznetsov has skated in every game this season, but can step up and score when the game is on the line. He has been red hot over the last week, posting eight assists in the five games prior to today, and, along with Ovechkin, will be the team’s major scoring threat for years to come.

Kuznetsov was rightfully named to the All Star game in Nashville as a replacement for Ovechkin, who was nursing an injury. Also named was first line center Nicklas Backstrom, who is having a career year between Ovechkin and TJ Oshie. Oshie did not get that honor, but an argument can be made that without Oshie, Backstrom would not have seen the ice in the Bridgestone Arena until the Caps play the Preds there this coming Tuesday.

Oshie is a complementary player who was brilliantly brought over from St. Louis this past summer. Playing on the opposite wing from Ovi on the first line, he has fit in beautifully in that spot. Averaging more than 20 minutes per game over the last few weeks, Oshie has a more than 50% faceoff win percentage for the season and is very effective playing in all situations. He is expected to post about 50-60 points this season, just as he did with the Blues.

What is particularly interesting about Oshie’s play this year is that he has an equal number of goals as he does assists. Throughout his career Oshie has been more of a playmaker, but his emergence as a big scoring threat himself provides extra opportunities for Ovechkin and for his center, Backstrom, who is also recording more goals than is usual for him.

These players and the top four defensemen are very good reasons that the Caps are seen as a leading candidate for the Stanley Cup. But there is one major potential weakness in Washington’s armor. Backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer has not been solid in his few appearances between the pipes. And going down the stretch and into the playoffs, backup goaltending can be critical. As the trade deadline approaches, Washington may decide that the short window for the Stanley Cup is now, and another backup netminder is preferable. The issue is cap space, of course, but it is not impossible for a trade to be made that will shore up that position. Stay tuned.