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Washington Capitals: Chasing Glory

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As the 2017-18 season unfolds, Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby will be chasing rare personal milestones

NHL: Preseason-St. Louis Blues at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Hockey is a team sport, but like any other team sport, milestones and achievements of an individual nature are celebrated. Last season, the Washington Capitals celebrated a number of individual milestones. Brooks Orpik played in his 900th NHL game. Nicklas Backstrom recorded his 500th career assist and his 700th career point in addition to passing the 700-game mark. John Carlson played in his 500th career game. And of course, Alex Ovechkin reached the 1,000-point mark, the 84th player in league history to do so and the 37th to do it with one franchise.

This season, two players have a chance for a rare, and in one instance unprecedented, achievement… but neither will be easy.

Ovechkin has the chance to reach the 600-goal mark, becoming just the 20th player in NHL history to reach that mark and the third active player to do it (Jaromir Jagr and the as-yet unrestricted free agent Jarome Iginla being the others). Ovechkin will have to improve significantly on last year’s 33-goal total in order to hit the milestone this year, sitting 42 goals short of the mark as the 2017-18 season dawns.

While Ovechkin’s pursuit has the air of inevitability, whether achieved this season or next, Braden Holtby is in pursuit of an achievement that is unprecedented and unique to the season ahead. Holtby is one of three goaltenders to have recorded three straight 40-win seasons. Martin Brodeur did it in the 2005-2006 through 2007-2008 seasons, and Evgeni Nabokov did it in the 2007-2008 through 2009-2010 seasons. No goaltender has done in in four consecutive seasons. Holtby can be the first if he reaches the 40-win mark this season.

So, can either reach their respective milestone this season, and what are factors that enhance or diminish their chances?

Alex Ovechkin: 600 goals

How he can get there? A hot start. If Ovechkin is feeling it early in the season, good things happen. In five of his seven 50-goal seasons, Ovechkin scored 13 or more goals in October and November. In the two full seasons he did not reach the 40-goal mark, he got off slowly to open the season – ten goals in October and November in the 2010-11 season (he finished with 32) and eight in those first two months of the 2011-12 season (he finished with 38).

A return to normalcy at even strength is a must. In the three seasons leading up to the 2016-17 season, Ovechkin recorded 27, 28, and 31 even strength goals, respectively. He finished those seasons with 51, 53, and 50 goals, respectively. Last season, though, his even-strength goal total was almost halved from his average of almost 29 even-strength goals per season over those three seasons to 16. What is ominous about that number is that he did not have an even-strength goal in his last 13 games in the regular season last year, and he had just one in his last 32 games.

How he can fall short? It might seem obvious, but one thing that will increase the likelihood he will fall short his hitting “600” this season is ice time. Last season, Ovechkin averaged almost a minute and a half less ice time per game (18:22) than his next lowest career season average (19:48 in 2011-12). And the truth is, he has never hit the 40-goal mark averaging less than 20 minutes a game (okay, that’s only two seasons – those two seasons referenced – but still).

Then there is the march of time. Only 24 players in NHL history have reached the 40 goal mark in a season at age 32 or older. Only six of them did it twice. None have done it three times. Remember that Ovechkin and the Caps had those seasons of turmoil in 2010-11 and 2011-12 when he finished with 32 and 38 goals, respectively. It was a period that began under head coach Bruce Boudreau, who reengineered the team from a pressure offense to a more passive trapping team, and when that finally sagged under its own lethargy, yielded to the uber-conservative Dale Hunter behind the Caps bench.

Whatever faults Adam Oates had as a head coach, keeping Ovechkin on a short leash was not among them, and he rebounded to score 32 goals in 48 games in the 2012-13 season, a 55-goal pace over 82 games. He went on to record 50 or more goals in the next three seasons. But while it is one thing to rebound from a disappointing season to resume a 50-goal pace at age 27, as Ovechkin was in that 2012-13 season, it is another thing to ponder if he has it in him to resume such a pace, or something close to it, at age 32.

Braden Holtby: Four Straight 40-win Seasons

How he can get there? If Holtby boosts his “quality starts,” he might offset factors that will work against him (see below). Using a measure defined by hockey stats guru Rob Vollman and employed at hockey-reference.com (starts with a save percentage higher than his average save percentage for the season or at least .885 when facing 20 or fewer shots), Holtby had 39 quality starts last season compared to 42 in 2015-16 and 43 in 2014-15. Part of the difficulty here is that Holtby’s save percentage was higher last season (.925) than in either of the previous two seasons (.923, .922), but the difference is not large.

He could improve his save percentage with more efficient results when the Caps are shorthanded. His save percentage when the Caps had a manpower disadvantage (.848) was his worst over his last three seasons (.888 in 2014-15 and .883 in 2015-16). But here again, he will need help. Holtby faced only 197 shots last season with the Caps short a man or two. Compare that with 265 shots faced in those situations in 2015-16 and 341 shots faced in 2014-15.

His teammates’ ability to minimize the volume of shots getting through or, better still, avoiding shorthanded situations entirely, could be a difference maker. Braden Holtby’s challenge is considerably different that Ovechkin’s. Wins are, after all, a team statistic. Like the pitcher in baseball, the goaltender is the one who gets the credit for the win as a statistical matter. So, to no small extent, Holtby will need help. What that could mean is that it could come down to two things -- one-goal games and shots faced.

Over the last three seasons in which Holtby won 40 or more goals three times, he posted a record of 58-18-23 in one-goal decisions. Those 58 wins represent almost 45 percent of his 131 wins over the period. And this is where the help comes in. If this Capitals team is less prolific offensively (they averaged 3.03 goals per game over the last three seasons, tops in the league over that span), Holtby could find himself posting numbers similar to those spanning his last three seasons (2.17 goals against average, .923 save percentage in 202 games) and find himself on the short side of more one-goal decisions.

As for shots, it would be quite a feat for the Caps to improve much on minimizing shots. Over the last three years they allowed the fourth-fewest shots on goal per game in the league (28.4). There just does not seem to be much room to improvement to reduce the shot burden.

In the end…

For both Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby, the milestones they chase are heavy lifts this season. Ovechkin has perhaps the easier path. His reaching 600 goals by the end of this season could hinge on two dimensions of time – his ice time and whether the effects of age will start showing themselves in a more obvious fashion.

This is not to say that more ice time would be a good thing for the team, necessarily (or for him for that matter, if keeping his wear and tear to a minimum before the postseason), but more of it, not to mention being able to push back Father Time at least one more season, could give him more chances to reach that milestone.

Holtby’s task is harder. If the Caps’ are less productive on offense than they were last season, which seems likely, he could put up save percentage and goals against average numbers roughly equivalent to last season and see more losses on the ledger. He can control what he can control, but there are limits to what he can control. He cannot do much about the level of support he is going to get in front of him. In his case, he could be as efficient as he has been over the last three seasons (save percentage, goals against average), but he might end up being less effective (wins) if he sees less goal support and/or faces a bigger shot burden.

Will either of them reach the milestones they chase? One counts out Alex Ovechkin at their peril, but we suspect that 600 goals will have to wait until early in the 2018-19 season. As for Holtby, it would appear that the streak of 40-win seasons will end at three. Still, for both players it will be fun to watch the chase.