The Washington Capitals began the second half of their NHL regular season last night with a 6-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. The win was the Caps third in a row, and nineteenth victory of the season, and put them two points over .500 at 45 points in 43 games.
That's about ten points ahead of last year's pace, and puts the Capitals right in the middle of the playoff hunt. While there's a lot of hockey left to play, that's about as much as Caps fans could have hoped for at the start of the season. They're a young, inexperienced hockey team, and there are going to be some growing pains.
Consistency is not yet the Capitals strong suit. Their wins and losses both come in streaks and that's the mark of a young team with fragile confidence. Their win/loss record seems to directly coincide with the flux of that confidence. When they're riding high, they're difficult to play against and tough to beat. When they're playing a little down, not even great goaltending and one of the best talents on the planet can earn a victory some nights. But you have to like the make up of this team and the way it is coming along overall.
Having passed the half-way point, let's look at THN's top five individual Caps performances so far:
Alex Ovechkin - Could Alexander the Great possibly have a sophomore season like his rookie season? Apparently he can. While Ovie's 2006 exploits have been largely overshadowed by Sid Crosby's unbelievable season so far, the Russian phenom is still having a great season by any standards.
Ovechkin leads the league with 28 goals. Eleven of those goals have come on the power play (t-5th). His 59 points are second best in the league behind only Crosby (65). But points aren't what make Alex a special hockey player. It's the intangibles that make him so spectacular. At last count, Ovie led the Caps by more than 20 body checks this season.
He's on track to at least equal his rookie performance, and his ability to continue to play his brand of hockey and dictate a tone for this young team, is what sets him apart. Ovie has a stunning 233 shots on goal, more than five shots per game. Alex has done nothing in 2006/2007 to believe that his greatness has been unsubstantiated.
Alexander Semin - The 'other Alex' is quickly becoming the 'other superstar'. What a great campaign so far in what can ostensibly be considered his rookie season. Semin has 22 goals (14th) and 41 points (32nd) to date, and has quickly become a vastly needed second offensive weapon for the Caps. Big things were expected from Semin, but he has delivered more than even the loftiest of expectations would have demanded.
He is a dangerous player on the power play where he has 11 of his 22 goals (t-5th). Some of his best plays this season have been passes, not goals. He has a real offensive flare and while he has to play second fiddle to Ovie most nights, it's been a help not a hindrance. Neither of the two Russian superstars speak very good English, but they speak volumes when they're out there on the ice.
It's safe to say that through the first half of his first season back in the NHL, Alexander Semin has done very well.
Chris Clark - The new captain of the Washington Capitals has done nothing but prove that he's the right man to wear the 'C'. Building off of a career best 2005/2006 season that saw Clark put up 20 goals and 39 points, it looks like his ninth season will surpass that by a fair margin. Clark already has 14 goals to go along with 17 assists, and considering his toughness, it's doubtful that he'll miss any significant time over the remaining 40 or so games.
It's his toughness and his leadership that have really come to the forefront as captain. Clark took a puck in the mouth in early December and broke the palate in his mouth. He finished his shift like nothing had happened and didn't miss any time. The guy is as gritty as they come, and is really thriving in his role as leader of this team.
Olaf Kolzig - They say that statistics don't always tell the story, and it would seem true this year of Kolzig. His goals against average is a paltry 3.00, 29th best in the NHL of 39 goaltenders listed. You get a slightly better impression when you look at Olie's save percentage of .912. That's a much more respectable 14th of 39. But sometimes you just have to watch hockey games to know if the statistics bear out any value.
In Olie's case, there are nights where he's all alone out there. The young, speedy Caps team often plays a very wide open brand of hockey; unfortunately, when it's not firing on all cylinders, that can mean a lot of odd man rushes for Kolzig to face. There isn't a statistic that tells you how many breakaways, or two-on-ones or three-on-twos that a goalie faces in a game, but Kolzig faces a lot.
A true mark of a great goaltender is one that can keep their team in the game night after night. Kolzig does that an awful lot.
Kolzig has faced the third most shots in the league (1102). Only Martin Brodeur (1138) and Roberto Luongo (1118) have seen more shots in 2006. But Brodeur saw that many shots in 40 games, Luongo in 41 games; Kolzig has played just 33 games. The context of those statistics is that there are nights that Kolzig gets pelted.
At over 33 shots per game, no NHL goaltender sees more rubber than Olie does.
The league recognized how well Olie was playing. They put him on the all-star ballot. He wasn't selected, but he deserved the nomination regardless.
Dainius Zubrus - For years Capitals fans have been waiting for an awakening from Zubrus, and it appears that it may finally have come. His 16 goals and 38 points are good for third in both team categories, and he's playing with an air of confidence that just wasn't there for his first five seasons in Washington.
He showed signs of life last year in putting up 57 points, but his stature and playing time demand more, and he's on pace to put up the type of numbers that you would hope for.
There is a lot of young talent realizing potential in Washington, and a large part of that is thanks to a guy not graded above, Glen Hanlon. Hanlon has done a great job of creating an environment whereby the young guys can grow as players without much pressure. Hanlon is out front absorbing any type of friction that comes the team's way, while the players just play hockey.
The Capitals are such a young team that Hanlon has a father-like persona to his players. The 'kids' want to play hard for him and most nights they do. They don't always get it done, but they rarely leave anything out there on the ice. Hanlon deserves top marks.
As they grow in experience, so too will they grow in confidence.
The Capitals have proven that when they're on their game, they can play with anybody. Hopefully the experience of learning such will help them find that level of play more consistently down the stretch, and get them into the playoffs.
Editor's Note: On Tuesday night, the NHL announced it's all star selections. Not surprisingly, Ovechkin was named a starter. It marks the first time since 1985/1986 and the Rod Langway days, that a Capitals player was elected to the starting line up. Ovie received 475,297 votes in the online ballot, and will make his all star debut in Dallas on January 24th.
Joining Ovechkin in the All-Star starting lineup for the Eastern Conference are defensemen Brian Campbell (Buffalo) and Sheldon Souray (Montreal), forwards Daniel Briere (Buffalo) and Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh), and goaltender Ryan Miller (Buffalo). The remainder of the All-Star rosters will be named on Saturday, Jan. 13.