When the Washington Capitals had 10 games remaining in the 2015-2016 NHL season, they had a 17-point lead in the Metropolitan Division and the President’s Trophy nearly locked up.
But this season, the narrative is a bit different. With 10 games remaining on the schedule, both the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Pittsburgh Penguins are nipping at the Capitals’ heels as they try to gain the sole lead of the Metropolitan Division.
That’s fine with the majority, if not all, of the personnel within the Capitals’ organization. Since last season, the competition wasn’t even close, and the team admittedly became a bit more relaxed. But as the team prepares to take on the Columbus Blue Jackets, Washington is presented with an opportunity to flex their muscles and put some distance between themselves and a divisional rival.
“Having sort of gone both routes now, I prefer this,” Trotz said. “It’s more meaningful. You have to play the right way, it’s in your hands and all that, and it was in our hands too early last year, and I think it took a little of the edge off. You get too comfortable for too long, you get too soft. I’d rather not be as comfortable, and we won’t be as soft.”
“Games like tonight down the stretch here, if you’re a coach or a hockey player, that’s what you play for,” Trotz said. “Get a games that has a lot of meaning, and we get an opportunity to do that tonight. We’ve prepared all year for this, so let’s get at it.”
Brooks Orpik agreed that by having the Blue Jackets knocking at the door—the Capitals currently hold a two-point lead over the Blue Jackets and a one-point lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins—the Capitals are far more likely to stay on their toes as they near the end of their regular season.
“Hopefully it helps us a lot,” Orpik said. “I think last year when we clinched the President’s Trophy, we took our foot off the gas a little bit. We didn’t have those meaningful games or those competitive games down the stretch, and it carried over a little bit into the playoffs. [Now] we have to play as hard as we can to finish on top, and hopefully that will generate some momentum for us.”
Considering the Penguins are the reigning Stanley Cup champions, it’s really no surprise to see them threatening the Capitals at the top of the Metropolitan standings. But the Blue Jackets’ rise to the top echelon of NHL teams is a bit more shocking. Just last year, Columbus was a collective mess. After a 0-7-0 start, the Blue Jackets fired coach Todd Richards and replaced him with John Tortorella. Tortorella couldn’t light a fire under the collective belly of the team, and Columbus finished with 76 total points, good for dead last within the division.
But what makes Columbus’ rise all the more astonishing is the little amount of roster turnover between this season and last season. With virtually the entire roster locked into long-term contracts, Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen signed only one free agent, Sam Gagner. And with virtually no team-friendly cap hits, Kekäläinen couldn’t even turn to the trade market.
However, there’s a statistical difference between this year’s version of the Blue Jackets and last year’s version. Adjusted for score situations and venue, Columbus is producing 58.04 shot attempts per 60 minutes of play this season, while allowing only 54.99. Last year, those totals were 52.98 for and 58.52 against.
And that’s immediately translating to on-ice production for many individual players. That under-the-radar Gagner signing? He’s tied his career high with 18 total goals. Cam Atkinson has destroyed his totals, with 33 goals already on the season and a career-high 60 points. William Karlsson has blossomed beautifully into a third line scoring center, with a new career high of 24 points.
Trotz sees a lot of similarities between his own team and the Blue Jackets. Columbus boasts talent on all four lines, even utilizing 13-goal scorer Scott Hartnell as a fourth-line player.
However, the key difference between the Capitals and the Blue Jackets is at the blue line. Trotz sees the Capitals as a bit more mentally mature. The Blue Jackets top pair of defensemen, Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, are just 19 and 22, respectively. But both ooze talent.
“They got two dynamic people, I know Jonesy has been in the league a few years, so he’s got some experience,” Trotz said. “Werenski is a real gem of a talent. We probably have a little more experience on the backend, but we’re constructed very similar.”
Despite the fact that the two teams share a similar level of talent, both teams have a different type of style about them. The Capitals simply possess an incredible amount of individual talent, and they can generally out-skill their way around any opponent. The Blue Jackets play with a bit of a chip on their shoulder and they certainly won’t shy away from the physical component of the game.
Orpik suggested that the Capitals chip the puck in a bit more often, and while he admitted that’s a boring brand of hockey, the Capitals must keep it simple, because they don’t want to skate up and down the ice with Columbus.
However, Tom Wilson believes that the Capitals can use that Columbus blue collar demeanor to their advantage, because he believes that the Capitals won’t just match their level of intensity, but they will continue to play their own version of the game.
“They always work hard, so you know it is going to be a tough game when they come in,” Wilson said. “That’s awesome for our team in here. They’re going to come in and work hard, we know that, and we’re going to have to match that and take it to them. It’s going to be a playoff-type atmosphere and a playoff-type game. You always know what to expect from them. If we play the type of game that we can, and we will, we’ll be alright.”