ARLINGTON, Va. -- From general manager Brian MacLellan's perspective, the Washington Capitals' window to win the Stanley Cup remains very much open.
It's not the same window they had the past two seasons when they won the Presidents' Trophy before failing each time to get past the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But with the Capitals again in first place in the Metropolitan Division, MacLellan looks around the NHL and sees a different opportunity to win a championship.
"I think the whole League is wide open," MacLellan said. "The market is such that a lot of teams have holes. A lot of teams are trying to manage around holes that have happened because of the salary cap, because of the expansion draft. [The Vegas Golden Knights are] a good team for a reason. Teams lost good players. Our whole division is pretty close. If you can manage around your holes, depending on what they are, you have a chance of coming out here."
Washington is four points ahead of the second-place Columbus Blue Jackets and three points ahead of the third-place New Jersey Devils in the Metropolitan Division.
"All these teams are good teams," he said. "We're all close to each other. So to count anybody out would be wrong. Everybody's in the hunt."
MacLellan noted that the Tampa Bay Lightning, who lead the NHL at 31-9-3 with 65 points, are the one team that has separated itself.
"They seem to be a little deeper than everybody else," he said.
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After the offseason departures of defensemen Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and Kevin Shattenkirk, and forwards Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson and Daniel Winnik, the Capitals don't have that kind of depth anymore. Yet, they are 27-13-3 with 57 points and two games left before their mandated five-day break, a home-and-home series against the Carolina Hurricanes that begins at Capital One Arena on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, NBCSWA, FS-SE, NHL.TV).
MacLellan believed the Capitals would be better than some predicted, but is pleased they've changed the outside perception.
"We're used to being the team that's competing, that should win," he said. "There's a lot of expectations, a lot of pressure. I don't think that's part of the narrative this year. It's more, 'These guys shouldn't be good. They're not good. How come they're doing better than we thought?'"
Initially, that wasn't the case.
The Capitals went 10-9-1 in their first 20 games and struggled to find their identity. There were questions about coach Barry Trotz's future because his contract expires after this season, and whether this group would be able to move on emotionally from the disappointment of last season.
Following road losses to the Nashville Predators (6-3 on Nov. 14) and Colorado Avalanche (6-2 on Nov. 16), the Capitals have gone 17-4-2.
After dropping from 50 goals in 2015-16 to 33 last season, captain Alex Ovechkin shares the League lead with Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning with 27. In a contract year John Carlson is among the League leaders in ice time (26:17 per game) and points from defenseman with 34 (five goals, 29 assists), and rookies Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, Jakub Vrana and Chandler Stephenson have grown into their roles.
MacLellan discussed those topics and more with NHL.com earlier this week.
On Ovechkin's renaissance at age 32:
"I think he recognized on his own, like good players do, the trends of the League. Players adapt, players throughout the League. The game is getting quicker and you need to slim down. You see the [Los Angeles Kings] guys, Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar, they did the same thing. He made a conscious decision to do that.
"The other thing with him is we need him more this year. I think he responds better to that. He's our go-to guy. Last year, we had four lines and we rolled four lines and he didn't play as much, not as much as ice time. … This year, he's being relied on to carry the load, and I think he likes it better this way."
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"It's been impressive what he's done, especially with [Matt] Niskanen's injury (missed 13 games from Oct. 14 to Nov. 12). He's really stepped up for the team, taken on the extra minutes, played hard. He's gotten through it. He's put up great points. He's having a great year. He's been here a long time, he's been a big part of the organization and, hopefully, he continues to be going forward."
On whether he needs to re-sign Carlson, a potential unrestricted free agent, before the 2018 NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 26:
"I don't think so. I think in the beginning [of the season], we were wondering where we were going to be as a team. [Now], we're going to want him back no matter what, so we're going to make our best effort to bring him back."
"He's done a good job. We were fragile coming in and it's not an easy thing to stabilize that. And I know the players had to go through what they had to go through, but to get to them to the point where they have the energy and the mental strength to compete again is a big deal. I think he's been a big part of it, the assistant coaches have been a big part of it, and the players themselves have done a good job."
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On his approach to the trade deadline:
"I'm OK with the forwards. I'd like our defense to settle in, be a little more stable. I'm a little aware of if you bring a [veteran] in, then Djoos and Bowey aren't playing as much. That's the balancing act of developing and winning. How you manage that is the key."
On what changed after the first 20 games:
"Probably getting over the disappointment of how we finished last year took a while, and the young guys were competing and lines were changing, pairings were changing, it wasn't stable. Then, somehow it slowly came together to something that worked better."
On if the Capitals have exceeded his expectations:
"I would have said maybe in the second half we'd show more signs of trending up. I still think we need to get to a better spot. The Metropolitan Division is so tight that you're not going to sit here and say, 'Hey, we're in first place' Everybody's within reach of each other and there's a lot of good teams."
On Djoos and Bowey:
"They're trending up. Maybe there's some inconsistencies to their game, and I think [assistant] Todd [Reirden] has done a great job of bringing them along slowly, putting them in spots where they can excel and learn things and work with them after games when they haven't played well, and trying to pair them up and put them in good spots on the ice."