- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Washington Capitals have led the NHL in standings points, or tied for the lead, every day since Oct. 29 without interruption. For perspective, on Oct. 29, the Nationals had not yet won the World Series, while the Redskins were 1-7 and coming off a loss to Kirk Cousins’ Vikings.

Despite a loss Tuesday to the New York Islanders, the Capitals (27-9-5, 59 points) remain in the lead with 41 games behind them and 41 games to go. There’s no reason to expect a collapse that prevents Washington from making the playoffs for the 12th time in the past 13 seasons.

In fact, there’s several encouraging things for fans to take from the stellar start. But the Capitals themselves are hardly satisfied.

Coach Todd Reirden was careful to separate how the Capitals played in their first 30 games from more recent performances — they’re just 5-5-0 in their last 10.

“Just figuring out how to slot other people in different lines and dealt with the injury to Nick (Backstrom), and now dealing with some of the adversity of guys not being perfect, we’re trying to find our way again,” Reirden said. “I think there were some good things, but obviously we’re a work in progress.”

“We obviously got a lot of points in the standings and won a lot of games, but we know we still have a long way to go to get where we want to be,” goaltender Braden Holtby added.

The most noticeable surprise of the Capitals‘ season is how quickly their new fourth line has meshed and how important they’ve become. None of three regular fourth-liners — Brendan Leipsic, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway — played on Washington’s Stanley Cup-winning team. All three have arrived via free agency since winning the Cup.

That fourth line has shaped Washington’s identity by encouraging a more bruising, pestering forecheck. But the trio also has produced just as many goals (13) as third-liners Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller and Richard Panik have combined for so far.

“I think for the amount of new faces that we have, we’ve come together pretty well,” Tom Wilson said. “It’s tough when you add new pieces and faces. There’s new systems, we’ve tweaked a couple things, so for the first half that we’ve had, guys needed to come together, guys needed to buy in and I think that we did for the most part.”

The first three months of the season were incredibly busy, considering Evgeny Kuznetsov’s season-opening suspension and several injuries pushing the Capitals tightly against the salary cap. They’ve also weathered an unbalanced schedule so far, with 22 road games — leading to an NHL-best 16 road wins.

The Capitals‘ yearly trips to California and Western Canada are already out of the way. They only have one high-mileage trip left, when they take on Colorado, Arizona and Vegas over the span of a week. Less travel in the second half of the season should give the team a slight edge in resting up for the postseason.

The flip side of that coin, though, is the amount of divisional games that still loom. The Capitals have 17 more games to play against Metropolitan Division opponents. They haven’t even played their archrival Pittsburgh Penguins, and have all four dates with Pittsburgh scheduled in February and March.

“We played some good hockey in the first half and played some teams that play a tough, gritty style of play, so hopefully that will help us down the stretch,” Wilson said. “And we’ve just got to make sure that we’re focused and we’re ready to go against the Metro opponents because obviously those are big points. You know them well, they know you, so we got to be sharp.”

The Metropolitan has turned out to be the toughest division in the league. The Capitals, Islanders, Penguins, Flyers and Hurricanes all have at least 49 standings points as of Wednesday. No other division has more than two teams at 49 or better.

Reirden called it “kind of a strange schedule” but was certain the remaining slate will sharpen up the team come playoff time.

“We’re going through some adversity right now and in our room, just trying to find our way here through some tough times,” the coach said. “That’ll make us better, going against teams that are in our division. They’re all good teams. We’re working through it.”

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