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Capitals ride balanced scoring to playoff berth

Depth on offense, Braden Holtby help Washington return to postseason

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

After their past disappointments, the Washington Capitals know they will be judged this season solely on how far they go in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Becoming the first team this season to clinch a playoff berth by defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-3 on Saturday was the first step. 

[Related: Capitals first to clinch Stanley Cup Playoff berth]

In the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division, the Capitals have a lot of work left to do in their final 11 regular-season games to secure home-ice advantage in the Eastern Conference First Round. Although the Capitals are also the NHL's first team to reach 100 points this season, the second-place Columbus Blue Jackets (98 points) are two points behind them and the Pittsburgh Penguins (97) are in third place, and they each have played one fewer game.

The Capitals' win Saturday was the second in their past seven games (2-4-1) and they are 7-6-1 since their bye week. Despite that, a second consecutive Presidents' Trophy is within reach.

Winning the Presidents' Trophy last season didn't work out as the Capitals hoped. They were eliminated by the Penguins in the second round and haven't advanced past the second round since making their only Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1998.

That doesn't mean qualifying for the playoffs for the third consecutive season and ninth time in 10 seasons isn't an accomplishment. 

[Related: Stanley Cup Playoff picture: Blue Jackets, Blackhawks can clinch Sunday]

"We have the same goal as we have every year," goaltender Braden Holtby told the Capitals website. "We believe we can win a Stanley Cup, but all year it's been focusing on the process of what we're doing here. Every game, we haven't been worrying about points or standings or first or second or third, whatever. We're focused on building our game so that [when] playoff time comes we're ready."

Here are five reasons the Capitals clinched:

1. Scoring depth

The Capitals have five players with at least 20 goals, seven players with at least 15 goals and 10 with at least 10 goals. After scoring three times Saturday, T.J. Oshie leads the Capitals with an NHL career-high 29 goals. That's one more than Alex Ovechkin.

Ovechkin hasn't had his best season after scoring at least 50 goals each of the past three seasons, but coach Barry Trotz has cut his ice time (from 20:18 last season to 18:26 per game) in hopes of keeping him fresh for the playoffs. That is when the Capitals will need Ovechkin the most, but he won't have to carry all of the load with the offense they have throughout their lineup.

They have Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom (21 goals) and Oshie on the first line, Marcus Johansson (22), Evgeny Kuznetsov (16) and Justin Williams (20) on the second line, and Brett Connolly (15), Lars Eller (10) and Andre Burakovsky (11) on the third line. The fourth line also has chipped in with Daniel Winnik (nine), Jay Beagle (12) and Tom Wilson (six).

Video: WSH@NSH: Wilson finishes Beagle's dish for early lead


2. Team defense 

To go with an offense that ranks third in the League in averaging 3.20 goals per game, the Capitals have given up a League-low 2.17 goals per game. They are fourth best in the League in allowing 27.7 shots per game.

A lot of that is because of their structure at each end of the ice and the balance of their defensive pairs. Since the trade for Kevin Shattenkirk on Feb. 27, Trotz has spread ice time fairly evenly at even strength among his top five defensemen: Matt Niskanen (16:55 per game), Dmitry Orlov (16:22), John Carlson (16:07), Shattenkirk (15:54) and Karl Alzner (15:27). Brooks Orpik has played the least at 14:16 per game.

Video: PHI@WSH: Orlov fires a slap shot past Mason


3. Nicklas Backstrom

Backstrom has quietly put together another strong season and is fifth in the League with 75 points (21 goals, 54 assists), five behind leader Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers. Backstrom is one of two players with at least 70 points in each of the past four seasons (Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby is the other). This is also the fourth consecutive season he has at least 50 assists.

One of the best two-way players in the NHL, Backstrom will probably be overlooked in the Hart Trophy voting, but maybe he'll finally get some recognition in the voting for the Selke Trophy. 

"I've been banging his drum and standing on the soapbox for everybody to take note, and he deserves it," Trotz said last month. "He will run away from [the media] and the attention. He doesn't want it, but he deserves it. He should be in consideration."

Video: DAL@WSH: Backstrom goes top shelf with nice redirect


4. Braden Holtby

Following a Vezina Trophy-winning season in 2015-16, when he tied the NHL record with 48 wins, Holtby is again among the top goaltenders in the League. His 2.05 goals-against average and eight shutouts lead the League, he is tied for second with 36 wins and ranks fifth with a .925 save percentage.

Holtby is bidding to become the third goaltender in NHL history with three consecutive 40-win seasons, joining the New Jersey Devils' Martin Brodeur (2005-06, 2006-07, 2007-08) and the San Jose Sharks' Evgeni Nabokov (2007-08, 2008-09, 2009-10). 

"I'm not thinking about it when I go into a game," Holtby said of getting 40 wins. "But at the of the end of the year, if you accomplish that that's something that you've battled through mentally, physically and it's a great goal to have and a great accomplishment."

 Video: WSH@TBL: Holtby shuts the pads on Killorn's redirect

5. Home cooking

Washington's 28 home wins are tied with Pittsburgh for most in the NHL. The Capitals are 16-1-1 in their past 18 games at Verizon Center, including a team record 15 consecutive home wins from Jan. 1 to March 4 and an NHL record-tying run 11 consecutive home games when they scored at least five goals from Jan. 3 to Feb. 11. 

The Capitals need three wins in their final five games at Verizon Center to break their record for most home wins in a season of 30, set in 1985-86 and 2009-10.

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