With apologies to the the other team juggernauts in the NHL currently, right now, the Washington Capitals are the best team in the sport. After Saturday’s 3-1 win vs their closest adversary in the Eastern Conference, the Montreal Canadians, the Caps now have an unfathomable 54 points in only 34 games played for a record of 26-6-2. The 54 points are the best ever at this point in team history and give them a 10 point lead in the Atlantic Division (over the New York Rangers) and simultaneously the Eastern Conference.
One thing is for certain with this team, they are lead by perennial MVP candidate Alexander Ovechkin and his longtime linemate Nicklas Backstrom but whenever a team seems to overachieve as the Caps are right now, the influx of new blood and the best goaltender in the league are the main catalysts. Second year stud center Evgeny Kuznetsov has taken a leap to another level, tied with Backstrom with a team leading 30 points, newcomers Justin Williams and TJ Oshie have contributed 10 and 13 goals apiece as the Caps are the only team in the NHL to have six players with 10 or more goals this season.
One of the troubling patterns during the original “Rock the Red” era Capitals was the fact that the team either didn’t stick with a goalie or chose not to develop one of the young goalies in the farm system. Under Coach Barry Trotz, 5th year goalie Braden Holtby has rewarded the patience of his coach and organization by becoming the best goalie in the league with a league leading 22 wins in just 28 starts. His 1.92 Goals Against Average (GAA) is again the best in the NHL. Do you sense a pattern here?
Coach Trotz has pushed all the right buttons since his arrival last season. He finally has a team that is a two-way juggernaut that can beat you in multiple ways even if Ovechkin isn’t the main guy scoring all the goals. With the All Star break approaching, its going to be nice watching a team with legitimate championship goals try to deliver on such a lofty goal each and every evening.
As a point of reference, I am not the biggest Kobe Bryant fan. Some may have concluded years back that I was one of the oft-mentioned “Kobe Haters”. But one thing is for certain, no matter what some people may feel about Kobe the Man or even “type” of player Kobe Bryant was, there is no denying the impact he left on the league and the legion of fans that engulfed the Verizon Center (to the dismay of many) on Wednesday night.
After the Wizards won a huge game in Cleveland the night before, people treated this game vs the 2-win Los Angeles Lakers as an afterthought. Mr. Bryant was having none of that, putting on an exemplary performance for the ages with 31 points which included two lead taking jumpers within the last minute of play to lead his Lakers to victory 108-104.
The final score was insignificant in the grander scheme, as every fan of the sport was there to witness, one last time, one of the true greats of the game. To say Bryant has struggled this season has been an understatement, but with the announcement of his retirement on Sunday, the season has turned from an ongoing joke to one last curtain call for the future Hall of Famer. I have rarely attended a sporting event and not cared who won or lost but by the middle of the fourth quarter, I, along with the sellout crowd of over 20,000 knew we were witnessing history.
If watching on TV seemed like it was a road game for the Wizards, it certainly looked that way inside the arena. At least 65% of the crowd were Laker/Kobe fans and they were rambunctious from the opening tip-off. As Kobe scored 14 of his points in the 4th quarter in a virtual duel with Wizards point guard John Wall down the stretch, the crowd was as emphatic as I’ve ever heard in the Verizon Center. Sadly to say, the pro-Laker crowd drowned out any and all Wizards supporters this night. But for this one night, it felt alright with me, a basketball historian who understands the place Kobe Bryant holds in the hearts of many fans. Fans who long for the passion and determination not seen a lot in today’s generation of players.
After watching Bryant soak up all of the cheers from his adoring fans one last time in DC, I was reminded why we love this game so much. Kobe gave it all, on the end of a back to back, in the middle of an East Coast road trip when he could have just shut it down and coasted thru the dregs of his final campaign. But he didn’t, and that is one of the reasons he is beloved by so many. I am a believer. Thank you Kobe.