The Capitals’ blueline has struggled to insulate the crease, but the offense, led by resurgent sniper Alex Ovechkin, is keeping Washington among the Eastern Conference’s top teams.
Through the first six weeks of the 2017-18 NHL season, the Washington Capitals were, by definition, mediocre. Nearly every game they won was followed by one they lost. And as early October turned to mid-November, Washington found themselves a scant one game above the .500 mark on Nov. 16 with a 10-9-1 record and coming off of two one-sided defeats in which they allowed a combined 12 goals against.
Those two losses, though, could very well have been the games that helped the Capitals flip a switch, because since those two straight blowouts, there has been no hotter team in the NHL. Over their past 10 games, contests which have seen Washington take on the likes of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets, San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks, Washington has been red-hot with an 8-2-0 record, 36 goals, a plus-13 goal differential and strong special teams play. And now, with the Capitals climbing within two points of the Metropolitan Division lead after a so-so start, it’s hard not to wonder if the speculation about Washington’s window closing considerably after last season’s disappointing playoff exit was somewhat premature.
Talk of the Capitals taking a step back this season didn’t come without reason, and the off-season cap crunch facing Washington GM Brian MacLellan was reason enough to wonder whether the Capitals would again be a true top contender in the Eastern Conference. Entering the season, gone were Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams and Daniel Winnik, three players who combined to score 60 goals and register a combined 131 points. It was a blow to the depth of the attack that some believed would limit the offensive ability of this group. But though it’s true that the Capitals’ offense is down in a season where the league’s goals per game average has increased, the dip in production isn’t as precipitous as some would have projected. In fact, with 3.06 goals per game, Washington is on pace to score just 10 fewer goals than they did all of last season.
It no doubt helps when the Capitals’ offense is led by a resurgent Alex Ovechkin, who hasn’t so much turned back the clock as he has hopped in a time machine and sent his early 20s self back to the future. Through 30 games, Ovechkin is atop the league with 21 tallies and on pace to fire home 57 goals, which would be the second-best total of his career. Part of that, as one would expect, has been Ovechkin’s power play prowess and Washington’s overall ability with the man advantage — only six teams boast a better power play — but after leading the league in power play goals for five straight seasons, Ovechkin is actually making most of his impact at even strength. His 15 goals at evens are second to only Nikita Kucherov’s 17 even-strength goals.
An Ovechkin that is firing on all cylinders is all good and well, of course, but his offensive reawakening alone wouldn’t be enough to replace what was lost in the summer. That others are exceeding or replicating past performances, however, has made the Capitals’ offense look formidable at times. Evgeny Kuznetsov, for instance, struggled to start the 2016-17 season and finished nearly 20 points shy of his career-best output come end of year. This season, though, Kuznetsov’s 10 goals and 31 points in 30 games have him on target to match or better his career-bests in every scoring category. And while the same can’t be said of Nicklas Backstrom, goals in back-to-back games after a 21-game drought has him back on track for another 15-goal, 70-point campaign. And if anyone can pick up the pace as the season winds on, it’s Backstrom.
But this is to only speak of the Capitals’ big three players, and it’s not as if Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Backstrom are the only ones producing. And while there hasn’t been a one-for-one replacement of what secondary scorers such as Johansson, Williams and Winnik were able to produce, it’s worth noting T.J. Oshie was on pace for another 30-goal campaign before falling injured, Tom Wilson was producing at the best rate of his young career and the Capitals have gotten four-or-more goals from each of Jay Beagle, Devante Smith-Pelly, Alex Chiasson, Lars Eller, Brett Connolly and Jakub Vrana. At the current rate, six Capitals forwards would hit 15-plus goals with seven set for upwards of 30 points. That’s one fewer, respectively, than Washington had last season. So, offensively speaking, it doesn’t seem as though the Capitals have taken as great a step backwards as some assumed they would.
Where it does appear that way, however, is defensively, where the losses of Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and, to a lesser extent, Kevin Shattenkirk have greatly impacted Washington’s ability to insulate their own goal.
Last season, beyond having an outstanding attack, one of the Capitals’ calling cards was its limiting defense. No team allowed fewer goals than Washington, which gave up only 177 on the year at an average of 2.15 per game. Last season saw even a marked improvement over the 2015-16 campaign, in which Washington allowed a mere 191 goals against, or 2.32 per game. Through 30 games this season, though, the Capitals are no better than a middling defensive outfit. Their 88 goals against puts them on pace for 241 on the year and the 2.93 goals-against-per-game rate ranks 15th in the league. And given Braden Holtby still possesses a solid .921 save percentage, you can rest assured that it’s not goaltending that has been the crux of the defensive concerns.
Rather, the Capitals’ biggest issue is that the defense has shown a downturn in its ability to protect Holtby. Over the past two seasons, Washington has produced stellar 5-on-5 numbers defensively. Per 60 minutes at five-a-side in 2015-16 and 2016-17, respectively, the Capitals allowed 54.2 and 50.9 shot attempts against, 27.6 and 26.9 shots against, 26.7 and 25.3 scoring chances against and roughly 10 high-danger attempts against. There has been a glaring increase in each category, however, as the Capitals are allowing 59 attempts, 31.6 shots, 31 scoring chances and more than 12 high-danger attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 this season. Even the return of Matt Niskanen from injury has only slightly stabilized the situation.
While the defensive woes aren’t necessarily surprising, they’re no less a concern, and if there is any way in which Washington’s window appears to have closed, it’s in their inability to be strong enough in their own zone to carry play on a nightly basis. That’s especially the case in a league where it’s been shown time and again that controlling the possession battle often correlates with winning. This isn’t to say the Capitals are no longer serious contenders, however.
If there is good news for Washington, it’s that there’s more than half a season for one of the fresh faces, be it Madison Bowey or Christian Djoos, to come around and produce as a steady rearguard. Likewise, there’s also ample time for MacLellan to address the blueline either at or ahead of the deadline. And if the Capitals can manage to shore up their defensive play and continue to have a similar offensive output, they’ve shown in recent weeks that there’s no reason why anyone should be writing them off as an Eastern Conference contender.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.