Nicklas Backstrom

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The Washington Capitals are up to their old tricks again

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The Washington Capitals are doing that thing again.

It seems every year they find a way to work themselves into the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. They’ve finished first in their division seven times out of the past 10 seasons and second twice. Only once — a fifth-place showing — have they been outside the top two during the past decade.

It’s become as predictable as it is remarkable.

And this year, at first glance, it’s sort of surprising.

Sure, Alex Ovechkin is still scoring, Nicklas Backstrom is still assisting and Braden Holtby is still stopping a lot of pucks.

But the Caps also took, what at least appeared to be at the time, a big hit on the backend over the summer.

Offensively, not much has changed (although they did lose Marcus Johannson’s 24 goals) but losing Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk to free agency and Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft left a sizeable hole to be filled on the blueline.

[Alex Ovechkin has never had a goal-scoring run like this]

Statistically speaking, they’ve also regressed from the numbers they put up last season when they amassed 55 wins.

They had the fourth best Corsi rating in the NHL last season, a statistic that made sense giving their winning prowess. Yet this year, with 21 wins, they sit 23rd in the category they dominated last season.

The same story plays out in expected goals, where they sat ninth last season yet are in 26th place now.

Analytically, a lot of their success this season doesn’t seem to add up, and yet they’ve won eight of their last 10 games and are currently on a three-game heater.

So why are they tied for first place in the Metro? There are a few answers to be had.

In the scoring department, several players have stepped up. Jakub Vrana has 10 goals in 33 games after three in 21 games last year and Tom Wilson is just three points shy of the 19 points he put up in 82 games last season. Brett Connolly and Alex Chaisson are also scoring at better rates and Washington sits eighth in five-on-five scoring.

What is also helping is their high shooting percentage.

At 9.22 percent, the Caps sit in fifth in the league, and their PDO, when you combine their shooting percentage and team save percentage, sits at 101.98, good for the third spot in the NHL.

And the Caps have proven they can keep that number high. Only two teams finished with over nine percent last season, and the Caps were one of them.

On defence, John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov have picked up the slack. The rookie third pairing of Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey is averaging 14 minutes a game and have been a solid addition.

And Holtby, is well, Holtby, which has been especially helpful given Philipp Grubauer‘s struggles to return to last year’s form so far.

So the Caps, for the most part, are in a good spot.

The biggest question that will surround the Caps, assuming they hold serve, is if they can replicate it in the playoffs.

Despite winning a slew of regular season games, the Capitals just can’t figure out how to do the same in April and May.

In nine of the past ten seasons they’ve made the playoffs, they’ve failed to even sniff the Eastern Conference Final, never mind a Stanley Cup final berth.

But that’s another story for another day, as it were.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Capitals punishment, Miller gets shutout

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Players of the Night: 

Tom Wilson, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals:

I suppose this is somewhat cheating the system, but instead of doing three separate posts for each guy, why not just praise them all at once? These three had a dominant night as the top line for the Caps, combining for 11 points. Wilson (two goals, two assists) and Ovechkin (one goal, three assists) each had four-point outings. Backstrom scored and added two helpers of his own for good measure.

Ryan Miller, Anaheim Ducks: 

Miller record his first shutout of the season to give the Ducks just their second win in their past nine games. The 37-year-old stopped 29 shots and has yet to lose in regulation this season with a 3-0-4 record.

Highlights of the Night:

Jonathan Toews provided this nasty deke on Braden Holtby in a game that was a lost cause for his Chicago Blackhawks:

This was pretty filthy from Ondrej Kase:

Bone-headed play of the Night:

This one goes to Matthew Tkachuk, who tried to get in a sneaky spear that was inevitably caught on camera. This could require a hearing from the league:

Factoid of the Night:

MISC: 

  • Don’t look now, but the Philadelphia Flyers have put together back-to-back wins after a 4-2 defeat of the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday. Don’t plan the parade just yet, though. They’ve only won two of their past 11.
  • NHL insider Bob McKenzie dropped by the NBSCN studios on Wednesday and got a little more specific as to how long Roberto Luongo would be out for. McKenzie said the timeline could stretch up to eight weeks for the veteran netminder.
  • McKenzie added that the Panthers will be looking at the possibility of adding a netminder. 
  • The Senators created a bunch of hope and belief in their dressing room after a 6-5 win against the New York Islanders last week. But they’ve resumed normal service as of late. After getting blanked 5-0 on Sunday against the Winnipeg Jets, Ottawa lost 3-0 in Anaheim on Wednesday.
  • Sticking with the Senators, Erik Karlsson has no points in his past 10 games.
  • Ottawa is 1-8-1 in their past 10.
  • Adam Henrique scored his first goal in a Ducks uniform on Wednesday.

Scores: 

Maple Leafs 2, Flames 1 (SO)

Capitals 6, Blackhawks 2

Flyers 4, Oilers 2

Ducks 3, Senators 0


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Caps’ Backstrom (hip) to miss preseason

After undergoing hip surgery in May, Capitals’ forward Nicklas Backstrom is expected to miss all seven of Washington’s preseason games.

“Backie is still the same,” coach Barry Trotz told The Washington Post. “He’s skating and if he keeps going, he’ll keep progressing and get cleared at some point to come to the main group. Once he comes to the main group, I think he’s a few weeks away. That won’t be for a little while. I don’t expect him to be playing in any of the exhibition games. I really don’t.”

At the time his surgery was announced, the Capitals were confident the 27-year-old would be ready for the start of the regular season.

Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was expected to start the season as the Caps’ second line center, could start the season playing on the club’s top line, if Backstrom isn’t ready for Washington’s regular season opener on Oct. 10.

“I’m going to be back to 100 percent before I start playing,” Backstrom said earlier this month. “I’m not going to play on 90 percent. We’ll see how it goes. We don’t know yet.”

Backstrom scored 18 goals and 78 points in 82 games last season.

Caps’ Backstrom won’t rush return from hip surgery

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Nicklas Backstrom is “not in a rush” to return from hip surgery and his status for the Washington Capitals’ season opener is very much in question.

“I’m going to be back to 100 percent before I start playing,” Backstrom told the Washington Post. “I’m not going to play on 90 percent. We’ll see how it goes. We don’t know yet.”

The Washington Capitals forward has been skating since the start of August and is feeling much better, but he realizes that he’s still very much in the recovery process and it’s hard to put a timetable on it.

When he’s healthy, Backstrom is Washington’s top center and one of the best playmakers in the world. He led the NHL with 60 assists in 2014-15 and has finished in the top-three in helpers on five separate occasions. The 27-year-old is projected to once again skate alongside Alex Ovechkin on the top line.

If he’s not healthy for the start of the season, then it will be interesting to see how Washington alters its lines in the short-term. Evgeny Kuznetsov is penciled in as the second line center, so we might see the sophomore play with Ovechkin in Washington’s first game.

Capitals’ biggest question: Is this finally the year?

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Of the 12 NHL teams that have never won the Stanley Cup, there may not be a more optimistic one heading into 2015-16 than the Washington Capitals. 

Here’s why:

— Alex Ovechkin just won his third straight Rocket Richard Trophy. At 29, he remains the NHL’s most dangerous goal-scorer. On top of that, the Caps appear to have found the right coach for the Russian superstar in Barry Trotz.

— The Caps also appear to have found a second-line center in young Evgeny Kuznetsov. If the 23-year-old continues to progress — and there’s no good reason he shouldn’t — Washington could have quite the 1-2 combo at center in Nicklas Backstrom and Kuznetsov.

— Defenseman John Carlson is emerging as one of the top blue-liners in the NHL. And at 25, he may get even better.

— Goalie Braden Holtby continues to post strong numbers. His .923 save percentage last season was tied with Pekka Rinne and one point better than Tuukka Rask.

Now throw in the additions of veterans T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams to go with youngsters Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson, and what emerges is a roster where a glaring weakness is pretty tough to find.

OK, sure, there are concerns. Like maybe the Caps will miss Mike Green more than they think. Ditto for Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and/or Eric Fehr. If Washington’s young players don’t step up next season, it’s hard to picture this team hoisting the Cup.

But that’s true of any team, really.

“I’d say the next three or four years is the window,” GM Brian MacLellan said in May.

Given how quickly the landscape of a young man’s league can change, it may turn out to be a shorter window than that.

The Caps have a real opportunity in 2015-16. Can they finally get it done?

Related: Green calls this year’s Caps ‘the best team we’ve had overall’