- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Nicklas Backstrom is aware of the comparisons.

Six years ago, the Washington Capitals were the juggernaut of the NHL, winning 54 of their 82 regular-season games to capture their first Presidents’ Trophy. The Capitals had five winning streaks of at least four games that season, including a 14-game surge that lasted nearly a month, and they outscored their opponents by 85 goals, an average of nearly 1.6 per game.

This season, the Capitals have similarly torn through their schedule, going 25-6-2 over their first 33 games. Not only did they enter the Christmas break on Wednesday with the highest point total in the Eastern Conference, but they have jockeyed with the Dallas Stars over the past week to be the best team in the league. They have outscored opponents by 34 goals, nearly 1.4 per victory, and have won their last six games.

Yet to Backstrom, the teams aren’t similar at all.

“I feel like back then, we gambled more,” said Backstrom, one of six Capitals players who have played a significant role on both teams. “I feel like we’re playing better hockey now. We’re playing the right way. Back then, we could win games 6-5, 7-5, and now we’re winning games 2-1.”

How the Capitals are winning games, and what it means for the rest of the season, may be more important than that they have won them. They can win games with their offense, as they did when they handled the Colorado Avalanche, 7-3, on Nov. 21, and they can win with their defense, much as they did on Monday, when they blocked four shots in the final 19 seconds to preserve a 2-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes.

They can win with their power play, like on Nov. 27, when they scored with the advantage three times in a 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, and with their penalty kill, when they were shorthanded for 1:07 in overtime and still stifled the Detroit Red Wings in a 3-2 shootout victory on Dec. 8.

They’ve even won games while facing seemingly insurmountable deficits. Last Friday, they spotted the Lightning three goals before rallying to win, 5-3, and then trailed the New York Rangers by two goals on Sunday before they exploded for a 7-3 road victory.

Those victories all ignore the strength of the Capitals‘ goaltending, with Braden Holtby leading the league with a 1.96 goals-against average and ranking fifth with a .931 save percentage. Holtby, who set a plethora of team records last year in a breakout season, has just one shutout to his name this year — Nov. 23 against the Edmonton Oilers — but has been similarly impenetrable in net, punctuated by a season-high 44 saves in a 4-1 victory at the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 14.

“We win differently than we won then, but the one common denominator between both teams is that there is such an undying belief that you could win the hockey game,” said left wing Brooks Laich, referring to the Presidents’ Trophy team. “There was such a resiliency that it didn’t matter what night of the week it was, where we were playing, what the situation was, what the adversity was — we were going to rise above it and find a way to win, and I think that team had it and this team has it, too.”

Laich, who had 25 goals and 34 assists in 2009-10, said the level of success the Capitals reached that season was particularly special because of the team’s recent history. Although Washington qualified for the postseason the two years before its torrid season, it was a long build to reach that point. It finished 14th out of 15 teams in the Eastern Conference in the 2003-04, 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons.

Those results manifested themselves in the Capitals‘ drafts, which led to them adding their two cornerstone players. Left wing Alex Ovechkin was taken with the No. 1 overall pick in 2004, and Backstom, the top-line center, was selected No. 4 in 2006.

After a slow build toward becoming one of the more offense-oriented teams in the league in 2009-10, the Capitals scored 3.9 goals per game, frequently blowing out their opponents. They won 23 games that year by at least three goals, scoring eight goals twice; Ovechkin scored 50 goals and was one of four Capitals players to surpass 75 points.

That magical season ended with a playoff thud. The Capitals lost in the first round to the Montreal Canadiens, squandering a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series because they failed to find that same uptempo, finesse style that carried them through the regular season.

“When you win by a large margin, you’re never really tested and you never really discover who you are until you are really tested,” Laich said. “Playoffs aren’t like that. Playoffs aren’t 4-0 games, 4-1 games. Playoffs are 2-1 games. Most of the series ends up tied until somebody gets a break and scores a goal and jumps out to a lead. To play those games in the regular season and get used to being comfortable in tight situations, I think, is advantageous to any team.”

That’s what happened for the Capitals last season, when they were eliminated by the Rangers in seven games in the second round, and they believe it will prepare them well again this year.

Those closer results, Backstrom and Carlson said, are also more satisfying. By being tested fairly routinely, the Capitals can diagnose, address and improve from issues evident in their game.

“I think lately, we’ve seen a lot of other teams’ A games,” coach Barry Trotz said. “They’ve come at us pretty hard. I think that’s a great test for us, and I think that’s great for our learning curve. With the start that we have … I think we’ve responded OK. I think we’ve found ways to get it done.”

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