The two teams with the most points in the Eastern Conference are the two worst puck-possession teams among the eight still playing. The four best puck-possession teams have a combination of concerns, ranging from questionable goaltending to injuries to slumping underlying numbers.
The Washington Capitals have none of those concerns. They possess one of the best goaltenders in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Braden Holtby, and they have better puck-possession numbers than the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers.
In a conference full of flawed teams, the Capitals lack glaring weaknesses. Because of this, they are best equipped to survive and win the Stanley Cup for the first time.
After several years as one of the top contenders for the Cup, the Capitals went through multiple coaches before Barry Trotz arrived. Trotz brought with him goaltending guru Mitch Korn, who has helped Holtby harness his considerable talent. Holtby has become a star this season and is one of the biggest reasons the Capitals could be primed to finally break through.
The Capitals were a middle of the pack puck-possession team, though adjusting for score affects pushes them closer to the top 10. Washington is firmly in the top 10 since the NHL Trade Deadline; the only team from the East ahead of the Capitals is the Carolina Hurricanes, who are not in the playoffs.
A big part of the reason for Washington’s improved puck possession after so-so seasons with coaches Dale Hunter and Adam Oates is one of the deepest defense corps in the NHL. New general manager Brian MacLellan spent big in the offseason, adding free agents Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in the summer and then Tim Gleason before the deadline to round out the defense.
John Carlson, Mike Green and Karl Alzner have anchored the unit for a few years, but now this is as deep and as talented a group as Washington has had since the mid-1980s, when multiple Hockey Hall of Fame defensemen were on the roster.
Then there is the best goal-scorer on the planet. Forward Alex Ovechkin has back-to-back 50-goal seasons after pundits wondered if his days an elite scorer were finished. Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have been dynamite this season, but maybe even more encouraging is the way the Capitals have played recently when those two were split.
Evgeny Kuznetsov spent time centering Ovechkin’s line, and Backstrom played between Troy Brouwer and Marcus Johansson. There is scoring depth in Washington, which was expected to be a problem this season. Brouwer, Johansson, Joel Ward and Eric Fehr each has at least 19 goals.
Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky are wild cards. They are young and talented, and Kuznetsov in particular had some impressive performances at the IIHF World Junior Championship. One of them could be a difference-maker.
The Capitals have elite front-line talent with Ovechkin, Backstrom and Holtby. They are as deep on defense as anybody, and the scoring depth is strong. It is a solid roster with a capable coach.
If everyone else has a potential fatal flaw, the lack of one is what makes Washington the most likely team to emerge from an unpredictable lot in the East.
It will also make them champions.