Five times in seven games the Washington Capitals faced backup goaltenders. Three times in seven games the Caps faced a team that played the night before and needed to fly to Washington late.
But three times, they took on teams considered members of the elite tier of the NHL and emerged unbeaten — most recently a test against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night that became a decisive 7-1 victory.
“So far we’ve passed it,” coach Bruce Boudreau said of his team reaching 7-0-0. “Every day you wake up, there’s new challenges and you just find new inspiration — ways to make it exciting. There’s a lot of games left — 75 games, if my math serves.”
So here the Caps are as the last undefeated team in the league, but everyone from players to the coach and owner don’t want to make too much out of a hot start — even though they became the 11th team all-time to start 7-0-0.
They’re three victories away from tying the NHL record of beginning the regular season 10-0-0, held by the 1993-94 Toronto Maple Leafs and 2006-07 Buffalo Sabres. Neither of those teams won the Stanley Cup.
“The season is 2 1/2 weeks old, but we can’t get high with the highs,” owner Ted Leonsis wrote on his blog. “It is October. It is not how you start — it is how you finish.”
Perhaps the source of optimism could be a glance at the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers, who started 7-0-0 en route to the Cup, or the 2000-01 Colorado Avalanche, who were 9-0-2 and won it all.
But these Caps are less concerned with that kind of history and much more about their play, which was strong all-around in the rout of the Red Wings. Tomas Vokoun had arguably his best game of the season and now boasts a 6-0-0 record and .944 save percentage. The power play clicked twice, thanks to two goals from Mike Green. And role players filled their roles about as perfectly as can be expected.
Detroit — which entered the game unbeaten, too — just couldn’t keep up.
“The bottom line is two teams came here that both thought they were good tonight, and they were better than us,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “That’s just the way it is.”
The Caps certainly haven’t been perfect through seven games, but they’ve been good enough to beat everyone on a tough October slate — and, of course, the Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators, too.
Vokoun — who admitted he’s not accustomed to the feeling of winning all the time — explained how a streak like this grows confidence. But he was clear that he and his teammates need to be better in areas and smarter, like not taking ill-timed penalties against opponents with dangerous power plays.
“We work hard, we play hard, and obviously we’re getting the rewards. We got all the talent,” he said. “There’s things we obviously want to be a little better at, but with this talent level, we’re able to sometimes escape.”
Saturday night was far from an escape — more like an example of how scary the Caps can be when they’re getting bounces and taking advantage of them. It has happened often enough so far that they haven’t experienced the pain of losing.
Because of that, they’re atop the NHL standings with a record that looks (and feels) good. But veterans and young players alike are quick to sharpen the focus on the challenges ahead.
“It’s a nice stat to have and obviously we want to accumulate as many points as we can right now, but we got a big game in Edmonton coming up here and Vancouver is a very tough team as well,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “We’ve just got to keep our mindset right and not get ahead of ourselves and keep playing the way we played [Saturday night].”