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This year’s Caps in rare company

- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 7, 2010

On Saturday, the Capitals paid homage to the team's past during their 35th anniversary celebration, which included a video montage featuring some of the playoff highlights of Captials teams past.

Of course, some fans watching were thinking how much this year's edition could add to that highlight reel.

Last year's club tied the Capitals franchise record for regular-season wins (50) and broke the mark for points (108). This year's team is set to obliterate both marks, as they currently are on pace for 56 wins and 121 points after Saturday's 2-0 win over the Rangers.

To put that degree of success in perspective, only two teams in the last 20 years have reached the 120-point total, the 1995-96 and 2005-06 editions of the Red Wings.

The current team's 96 points -- through just 65 games -- have been matched by only seven teams in club history over the course of an entire season, and only three times since the 1991-92 season. And, this year's team has 17 more games to add to that gaudy total.

Washington is also threatening to make this year's divisional and conference race a landslide, as they currently hold a 30-point lead in the Southeast Division over second-place Atlanta, not to mention a 14-point lead over Pittsburgh for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The Capitals also hold a five-point edge for the President's Trophy, and home-ice throughout the entire Stanley Cup playoffs.

All this means that any combination of three Washington wins or regulation losses by Atlanta clinches the team's third consecutive Southeastern title, which would be the first time in club history the team has won three straight divisional titles. That potentially could come as early as Wednesday night -- over a month before the regular-season finale against Boston -- when the Capitals host the Hurricanes, should Washington win Monday night against Dallas and the Thrashers lose in regulation Tuesday night against Nashville.

The Capitals can also clinch top seed in the East with 22 of a possible 34 points down the stretch, regardless of what the Penguins or Devils do down that stretch. Even if Pittsburgh or New Jersey runs the table, Washington just needs to go 11-6 in its final 17 to take the East.

And remember, the Capitals just finished a 20-game stretch where they have picked up 36 of a possible 40 points (17-1-2).

One of the reasons for the success this year is the team's depth, which just got even deeper with some of the team's moves at the trade deadline.

Despite the team's brightest star being in the worst slump of his season, the Capitals got wins in the first two games of their homestand thanks to goals from two of their new acquisitions, Scott Walker and Eric Belanger.

In fact, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau has a problem any coach would love to have -- too much talent to choose from.

"We've got a lot of players here and people want to keep playing," Boudreau said Saturday. "It's really difficult decisions for coaches when youre consistently winning with different lineups, but everybody in that room is a real competitive player and so they want to play and when that happens, you usually find a new way to play a little better."

Washington has also come out of the Olympic break with three straight wins -- despite the fact their top three scorers have just three assists combined since returning to action after the long layoff. For a team that used to rely on their top line heavily for offense in years past, it's a welcome change.

"I think if you look at [Nicklas Backstrom] and Alex [Ovechkin] they're just off by like half a second," Boudreau said of his stars. "Their timing since coming back from the Olympics has just been a little off, but you know theyre going to catch on and its going to happen sooner or later.

"I'm not worried about them and it says an awful lot for the rest of the players that they can score while two of your best players are not."

So where does this team stack up against past Capitals teams?

The best regular-season team -- before this year -- was probably the 1985-86 edtion, which recorded 50 wins without benefit of the shootout, and featured four Hall of Famers in Mike Gartner, Rod Langway, Larry Murphy and Scott Stevens. But that team ran into a hot goaltender in John Vanbeisbrouck and lost the Patrick Division Finals to the Rangers in six games despite its 107 regular-season points.

The two Capitals teams that advanced deepest in the playoffs weren't necessarily great regular-season teams, but got key scoring and goaltending.

The 1989-90 Caps got an amazing 15 goals -- including four game-winners -- from John Druce as they advanced past the Devils and Rangers before falling to the Bruins in a sweep. The 1997-98 Capitals rode Olaf Kolzig's stellar play, as the netminder posted a 1.95 goals-against and a .941 as Washington beat Boston, Ottawa and Buffalo before getting swept by the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit in the final.

But almost no Capitals team has had this kind of offensive firepower or depth, although the one team that did have that kind of scoring was the 1991-92 edition, who scored a club-record 330 goals in 80 games, and this year's team has a shot at that mark, as with 257 goals so far, they are on pace for 324 goals this year.

That edition of the Caps was red-hot entering April with a 7-3 stretch. However, that momentum was halted thanks to a two-week labor dispute, and the team never got back in a groove after players returned to the ice. After the Capitals went 1-1-1 in the final three regular-season games which was a brief tuneup for the playoffs, blew a 3-1 lead to the eventual Stanley Cup champions from Pittsburgh in the first round and lost in disappointing fashion.

However, this year's edition, while potent offensively, also is quietly one of the better statistcally in terms of defense, as its pace of 230 goals-against would be the best for a Caps team since 2002-03.

A word of caution for those already planning the parade route down Constitution Avenue, however. Of the two teams that eclipsed 120 points in the last 20 years, neither of them even reached the Stanley Cup Finals.

But certainly, for a team that is looking for its first title in club history, this team could have the best shot of any of them. Which has even the newest Caps excited to be on board.

"It's great to be around guys that win games like that," Belanger said Saturday. "You just want to keep winning.