Nations: Window wide open for Caps

The NHL is off and … skating … did you know that?

Of course you did, if you happen to follow the NHL. For me, this early October start just feels out-of-season. Then again, a start at all is something of an accomplishment for the NHL and it’s season-canceling recent past, so no complaints.

The Washington Capitals are off to a less-than-rousing 1-2 start, but it could be worse and nearly was if not for the Caps topping the Calgary Flames in a 5-4 shootout last week at the Verizon Center.

Alex Ovechkin helped Washington rally from three goals down against the Flames on Oct. 3. The Caps’ sensational right winger scored twice, assisted on the game-tying power-play goal by teammate Nicklas Backstrom at 14:10 in the third period and notched the game-winner in the shootout.

It was an impressive opening week for the native of Moscow. Just days after returning from Greece, where he was the first Russian to carry the Olympic torch for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, Ovechkin set to work lighting up opposing goaltenders. He opened the season with a goal and an assist in a 6-4 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, followed up with that dominating effort against the Flames and finished off his week by tallying the Caps’ only goal in a 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars on Saturday.

For his efforts, Ovechkin was the slam-dunk choice as the NHL’s “First Star” of the week announced on Monday.

Washington fans can expect a lot more weeks like that from Ovechkin, who at age 28 remains at the very peak of his game. The question remains — when will the Caps take full advantage of this opportunity? Ovechkin is arguably the best player in the NHL, and has been for significant stretches of his tenure in Washington. The Caps have precisely zero Stanley Cup finals appearances during Ovechkin’s first eight years with the franchise, with a few Southeast Division and playoff appearances mixed in.

Considering Ovechkin’s stellar contributions over the years, it seems reasonable to have higher expectations. Washington hasn’t been idle during that time, reworking the roster to try and add more scoring punch, trading out coaches in search of that elusive “toughness” factor that the Caps seemed to lack under former coach Bruce Boudreau.

Nothing has worked so far to elevate Washington from perennial contender — underachieving, even — to a truly dominant franchise in the NHL. The Caps have never won the Stanley Cup, with or without Ovechkin, and have played in the Finals just once (1998) during the prime of former goalie Olaf Kolzig’s long career in Washington. Kolzig, for a time, ranked right up there with Dominik Hasek as the best on the planet at his position. The Caps couldn’t turn that into a Stanley Cup title, just like they haven’t — so far — during Ovechkin’s best years.

The best is now — right now — and Washington must find a way to make the next step. Need to firm up the defense? Make it happen. Braden Holtby looking shaky between the posts? Find somebody else.

This is the window for the Capitals. Ovechkin, and a few others, have been propping that window open for a couple years now. There’s no telling how much longer that can happen, but there is a time limit. Second-year coach Adam Oates spent his first season installing his system and figuring out where all the moving parts work best for the Caps. The big move was shifting Ovechkin from his customary left wing spot to the right, and that decision paid off handsomely last year as Ovechkin claimed his third Hart Trophy as league MVP in the lockout-shortened season.

Under Oates, Ovechkin is playing at the top of his game. It’s time for the rest of the Capitals to join him. If that happens — and soon — Washington could at long last be home to a Stanley Cup champion.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>. Follow on Twitter @J_NationsNVD