The Metropolitan Division is not an easy place to make a living in the NHL. Between the New York Rangers, coming off a trip the Stanley Cup Final last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins, perennial contenders with two of the best forwards on the planet, and an up-and-coming New York Islanders team, the top of the division is a difficult place to be successful.
The Washington Capitals have navigated those waters and return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after coming up short a season ago.
Washington made the playoffs for six consecutive seasons beginning in 2007. They had 90 points in 2013-14, but fell three points short of the Detroit Red Wings for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference.
But with its stars in top form, a new coach and a group of young players who continue to mature, Washington was able to put last season's disappointment behind and qualify for the playoffs.
Here are five reasons why the Capitals clinched:
1. The 'Great 8'
The Capitals have the best goal scorer and one of the most dynamic players in the League in forward Alex Ovechkin, and the wing is putting together an MVP-caliber season. Not only does he lead the League in goals by a wide margin (his 52 are 10 more than the No. 2 scorers Rick Nash and Steven Stamkos) but Ovechkin helps the League's best power play and has accounted for 24 of the Capitals' 59 power-play goals.
Coach Barry Trotz praises Ovechkin for his physicality, and the Capitals captain is certainly a tone-setter. But for all the criticism Ovechkin takes for not being a good defensive player, or taking shifts off, consider this: He has a shot-attempts percentage (SAT%) close to 54 this season, an indication of how dominant he is when he's on the ice. He also has a goals-for percentage slightly under 52, according to war-on-ice.com, meaning the Capitals score more than they're scored against when Ovechkin is on the ice at even strength.
2. Holt-ing down the fort
Goalie Braden Holtby started significantly more games than any other Capitals goaltender last season, but it was hard to argue his 45 starts gave him a stronghold atop their depth chart.
This season, with the help of new goaltending coach Mitch Korn, Holtby's game has flourished, and he's been one of the best at his position. For a team that doesn't struggle on offense (Washington has been in or just outside of the top-five in goals-for per game most of the season), Holtby has anchored the Capitals in their own end, starting more games, playing more minutes, facing more shots and making more saves than any other goalie in the League.
The biggest testament to Holtby's turnaround came during a stretch in the schedule beginning in November and ending in mid-January when he started 21 straight and set a franchise record making 27 consecutive appearances. He ranks near the top in most goaltending statistics and has kept his name in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy.
3. Back-street's back, alright
Center Nicklas Backstrom is one of the major catalysts to Ovechkin's success, but Backstrom does more for the Capitals that goes unnoticed. Aside from leading the League with 57 assists, and complementing Ovechkin's game, Backstrom is one of the best defensive centers in the game.
Backstrom and Ovechkin each play more than 20 minutes per game, but. In addition to the more than three minutes Backstrom averages per game on the power play, he averages almost a minute shorthanded. Trotz can use Backstrom in any situation and knows the Capitals won't be at a disadvantage. Backstrom wins nearly 54 percent of his faceoffs, and has a positive shot-attempts differential.
4. Barry be good
The Capitals have long been a team with an offensive identity. In his 15 years with the Nashville Predators, Trotz was known for coaching teams that were defense-first and built from the net out. In his first year coaching the Capitals, Trotz has brought a bit of his own style, though he hasn't tried to completely change the Capitals character.
The raw numbers show Trotz has made Washington into a better defensive team. The Capitals average fewer goals against per game this season than last, and Trotz deserves much of the credit. Trotz also brought his goalie coach Korn from Nashville. The goalie is the last line of defense; Korn, and Trotz indirectly, has helped strengthen that line.
Trotz's biggest accomplishment stems from what he hasn't done. Past coaches have tried to tweak Ovechkin's game, fixated on things like his plus-minus rating or a perceived lack of defensive responsibility. Trotz has allowed Ovechkin to be himself, which really hasn't changed much at all, save for seeing his linemates getting more bounces, helping his plus-minus.
5. Who ya gonna Carl?
In a season where this is no clear-cut favorite for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the League's top defenseman, no player is overlooked as much as John Carlson, who averages more minutes than any other Capitals skater. On a blue line that signed free-agent defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik last summer, Carlson has been the centerpiece, with 23 more points than Niskanen, who's known for his offense. Carlson is third on the Capitals in scoring behind Ovechkin and Backstrom. His 53 points are sixth among defensemen.
Carlson faces stiff competition on a regular basis, and his team still has more scoring chances for than against in those minutes. He's positively driving possession and, like Backstrom, Carlson is deployed in about any situation imaginable: chasing or protecting a lead, shorthanded or on the power play (Carlson is one of four players in the League to average at least 18:00 even-strength minutes per game, 2:55 shorthanded per game, and 1:30 on the power play per game). Those minutes are also coming against the opponent's top forwards.