Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby powering Washington Capitals in NHL season
What would happen if you paired the best goalscorer of his generation with an elite goaltender having a Vezina Trophy-worthy season?
You would have the Washington Capitals, a team that quickly have moved to the top tier of the Eastern Conference.
Historically, the Caps have been viewed as Russian superstar Alex Ovechkin’s team, the one that fizzles in the post-season, and sometimes just struggles to get there.
But it is a new-look club through the early months of the season, with Braden Holtby emerging as one of the most dependable shot blockers in the game.
His 1.95 goals against average leads the league among starters, and his 92.8 per cent save rate is fifth. His 16 wins also top the league.
“He’s the eraser when we make mistakes,” coach Barry Trotz told The Washington Post. “Some nights when we look better than we are, it’s because of Braden.”
Washington’s 18-5-2 record has produced a conference-best average of 1.52 points per game.
While Holtby, 26, has elevated his game, Ovechkin is still producing milestone moments. Earlier this year he surpassed Sergei Fedorov as the all-time leading Russian goalscorer in the NHL.
A contingent of writers and statisticians took the opportunity to declare Ovechkin not just the best ever Russian scorer, but to rate him among the greatest NHL scorers of all time. Whether it is advanced metrics, or simply the eye test, Ovechkin measures well.
Most simplistically, he has led the league in goals five times since 2007/08. He has reached 50 goals six times, a feat achieved only by five others, all of whom played in the wild, high-scoring 1970s and ’80s.
Fellow Russian Pavel Bure, writing for NHL.com’s Russian language website, boiled the speedy, quick-handed Ovechkin’s advantage down to one overriding skill.
“What makes him unique is the unbelievable precision of his shot,” wrote Bure, an NHL great.
The 30-year-old left wing is off to a rather modest start, by his own standards, with 12 goals and 11 assists. But that should change, since he is still zipping off those precise shots at a league-leading pace: 124 in 25 games.
One Ovechkin number that Caps fans appreciate the most, however, is his plus-13 number, which puts him fifth in the league. Two years ago, he posted a minus-35 for the season, which served as the keynote theme of all criticism directed at the Caps captain.
Last year, he turned it around to a plus-10, and has continued the trend.
Ovechkin, however, is not the only Russian star on the team. In his second full year, Evgeny Kuznetsov has been a playmaking catalyst with 18 assists, and eight goals. The 23-year-old centre’s 26 points lead the team.
Veteran centre Nicklas Backstrom also has been his usual steady self, with eight goals and 13 assists.
In addition to Holtby’s play, the defence has solidified behind its top two blue-liners, John Carlson and Matt Niskanen. The Caps are allowing only 26.7 shots per game, second best in the NHL.
Last week’s 3-2 victory in Montreal over the Atlantic Division-leading Canadiens was another confidence builder, as Washington take stock of their rising.
“We believe we are a team that can find ways to win, even when we’re not at the top of our game,” Holtby said.
So far, it has been hard to tell when they are not.
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Updated: December 8, 2015 04:00 AM