The Washington Capitals' early season success has made the rest of the NHL take notice.
Washington usually begins the season on a sour note, struggles through the first three months, starts to find itself around the first of the year and makes a late-season surge to get into the playoffs.
Not so this season. The Capitals have done a complete turnaround. They came out of the gate flying and give no indication of letting up. They are off to their best start (11-3-0) in franchise history, have scored the most goals (67) in the NHL, are one point in back of the Montreal Canadiens for the best record in the league and are unbeaten (6-0-0) against Patrick Division opposition.
What are the reasons for this dramatic change? Washington has, for the most part, the same personnel it had last season.
Coach Terry Murray cites several reasons.
"I believe that good offense starts with good defense," Murray said. "You take care of things in your own end of the rink and it leads to good offense at the other end. I'm very pleased with my defense."
The blue-line corps has contributed 14 goals and 28 assists to the Washington offense.
"Kevin Hatcher [11 points], Al Iafrate [four points], Calle Johansson [12 points] and Sylvain Cote [11 points] have done an excellent job in our end and also in moving the puck up-ice and getting involved in the offense," said Murray.
"Rod Langway is our team captain and anchor of our defense. He's a veteran, stay-at-home defenseman who is always around the puck. Mike Lalor is more aggressive this year, and he is doing a great job in our end."
The Capitals' offense has been a pleasant surprise. Dino Ciccarelli, Dale Hunter, Dimitri Khristich, Peter Bondra, Michal Pivonka and Randy Burridge have contributed.
Kristich (10 goals, seven assists), Bondra (8-9), Pivonka (6-11) and Hunter (2-15) have 17 points apiece, Ciccarelli (9-7) and Burridge (4-12), acquired in a trade with the Boston Bruins over the summer, have 16 points each.
Washington's goaltending also gets high marks from Murray. "Mike Liut (7-2-0) has been super in the goal and Donnie Beaupre, who missed most of preseason in a contract dispute, recorded a shutout in his only start for us this season," Murray said.
Three Capitals reached NHL milestones over the weekend. Friday night, Liut recorded the 25th shutout of his 13-year career with a 4-0 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Liut has won 290 games, moving him into 10th place on the all-time list, one win ahead of Ed Giacomin, who played for 13 seasons in the NHL with the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings.
Ciccarelli scored the 800th point of his NHL career in the 7-4 win over the New York Islanders Saturday and Kelly Miller scored his 100th, point against Toronto Friday.
Seventeen NHL players will earn $1 million or more this season with the Los Angeles Kings' Wayne Gretzky leading the money parade with $3 million.