Through the first month of the 2016-17 season, the Washington Capitals remained up towards the top half of the standings in the NHL's Metropolitan Division. They found themselves looking up at the offensively prolific New York Rangers and the defending Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, but the Caps kept winning enough games to remain within shouting distance of those two clubs.
Even so, the feeling among most players in the Washington locker room was that the Capitals had another level, another gear. Earlier this week, Caps alternate captain Nicklas Backstrom had this to say:
"It's time for us to start playing really good. We're at the top, but I don't think we've played good at all, to be honest with you. We can be better by at least 30 percent."
Starting a five-game homestand on Wednesday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Caps found that other level, that other gear. And they reached it consistently for 60 minutes in a 7-1 trouncing of the Penguins.
With two goals and five points, Backstrom led the way. T.J. Oshie had a pair of goals and four points. Justin Williams, Dmitry Orlov and Alex Ovechkin also scored, ending goal droughts of varying lengths. Braden Holtby stopped 25 of 26 shots he faced, coming within three and a half minutes of his first shutout of the season.
"Hopefully it's going to give us confidence moving forward and something to build off," says Backstrom. "We're in a good position in the standings, but we haven't played our best. Hopefully we can get going here and build from this."
Last season's Caps team finished among the top five in the league in goals scored, five-on-five goals scored and power play efficiency. But 15 games into the 2016-17 season, the Caps found themselves in the middle of the pack or lower in all of those departments. Wednesday's offensive outburst helped propel them up those ledgers a bit, and it moved them into a tie with Pittsburgh in the Metropolitan Division standings, four points behind New York. The Caps and Pens have played one fewer game than the Rangers.