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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck