The road to hit ten home and ten away wins was a hard one for the Capitals, but thirty-two games in, they’ve taken both milestones, thanks to an impressive three win week against Detroit, Carolina, and Buffalo.
With the week before the National Hockey League’s holiday break looming before them, it remains to be seen how many more wins they can add to their impressive total of twenty, which has them in the top six league wide, behind only Tampa Bay (25), Nashville (22), Winnipeg (21), Toronto (21), and Calgary (21).
With a fourth line that’s had an incredible December, the addition of T.J. Oshie to the electric combination of Ovechkin and Backstrom on the top line, and Siegenthaler and Bowey combining for a third pair experience no one could have expected, could the Capitals go 3-0 two weeks in a row?
Record: 20-9-3 (Home: 10-4-2 / Away: 10-5-1)
Standing: 1st Metropolitan / 3rd Eastern
Goals For: 122
Goals Against: 100
- Goals: Alex Ovechkin (29)
- Assists: Nicklas Backstrom (30) & John Carlson (30)
- Points: Alex Ovechkin (43)
- PIM: Madison Bowey (29)
All of the Capitals’ games this week were high scoring affairs, and this rager against Detroit kicked off the trend. The first of Alex Ovechkin’s hat tricks this week helped the Capitals to victory, but the round of applause should go to the Capitals’ secondary scorers, who helped bring the win home.
The scoring opened with Connolly’s sixth of the season, bringing him within sniffing distance of the halfway point to his career high of fifteen goals, which he’s hit twice — in 2016-17 and 2017-18 — both times with the Capitals. Connolly’s contract is up at the end of this season, and with six goals already, he’s on track to breeze right past his previous career high in goals, as well as his total assist and point markers as well. Connolly is very good at what he does, but with the expansion draft looming ahead, now that Seattle’s confirmed… that’s another article. I’ll save my thoughts for that.
The inimitable Boyd, Jaskin and Dowd trio combined for a goal halfway through the period, Washington’s second of the night, and two minutes later, Ovechkin scored his first of the night, from Backstrom and Kempny. Detroit did not convert on their sole power play opportunity in the first period, and the Capitals went into the dressing room up three goals to zero at the first intermission.
A short break did nothing to dull their fire, as Ovechkin notched his second of the night a minute short of the halfway mark in the second period, and T.J. Oshie put away a power play goal in his first game back from a concussion earned thanks to a Frans Nielsen tripping penalty to bring Washington up 5-0 going into the third intermission. Jonathan Bernier was pulled after Oshie’s goal, replaced by Jimmy Howard, who only allowed one goal during the remainder of the game, which sounds remarkable until you realize that he only faced ten shots. Late in the second, Detroit was given another opportunity to score on the man advantage, but did not convert again, leaving them 0 for 2 on the night.
A minute into the third, Dylan Larkin scored Detroit’s first of the night, but unfortunately, D-Boss’ success was shortlived — The Great Eight completed his hat trick off assists from the Most Super of Swedes, Nicklas Backstrom and Christian Djoos (who suffered the thigh injury that necessitated surgery later in the week sometime during this game). Gustav Nyquist scored nearly seventeen minutes in, but it wasn’t enough. The Detroit Red Wings fell to the Capitals, 6-2.
This game was a low penalty affair, surprising for the Washington Capitals, who deeply enjoy putting their penalty kill on the spot — both of Detroit’s penalties were incurred by Frans Nielsen (who it sounds like most Detroit fans are neutral at best about?), and the Capitals, surprisingly, held themselves to only one penalty all game (a hooking call on Dmitry Orlov). Holtby came so close to the shutout that he could probably taste it but such is the way of things — Detroit needed those two goals and I’m glad they got them, considering they did very little damage to Holtby’s 94.6% save percentage.
With Wilson returning from injury just as Christian Djoos was ruled out indefinitely after thigh surgery by the club, the Capitals, per Isabelle Khurshudyan of the Washington Post, had a completely healthy forward corps coming into the match against Carolina for only the second time all season. That came at the expense (or at least seemed to, given the funny timing of events) of a struggling defense corps, but Jonas Siegenthaler, who’s impressed Capitals brass and fans alike, was luckily more than ready to fill the void.
The Capitals started their only away game of the week in the hole by one goal — forty-seven seconds in, Sebastian Aho found Jordan Martinook for the Hurricanes’ first of the night. Sebastian Aho is proving himself to be an elite center in the National Hockey League, and those of us who don’t follow Carolina religiously should take notice. He’s got a lot of ideas hidden away in his bag of elf tricks and he’s going to use every single one.
Thankfully, Alexander Ovechkin did his thing, getting Jonas Siegenthaler and Nic Dowd on the scoreboard while scoring his twenty-sixth (yeah, that’s right) goal of the season, but Carolina pulled ahead to end the first on a shorthanded tally by, you guessed it, Sebastian Aho (featuring Teuvo Teravainen, my favorite Blackhawks rescue).
The second period was a high scoring affair, with five goals scored between the two teams. Carolina scored two power play goals, one by Aho and one by Teravainen (which was assisted by one of my favorite rookies, Andrei Svechnikov), but then the Capitals took the reins and refused to let go for most of the remaining thirty minutes of play. Tom Wilson scored his ninth of the season, followed by Ovechkin’s twenty-seventh, and Travis Boyd scored in the last two minutes of the period to tie the game going into the third period.
Despite Ovechkin’s attempt to pull the Capitals ahead, scoring his second hattrick in as many games with a power play marker, Justin Williams, former Capital, sent the game to a shootout, where Capitals fans were delighted to learn that John Carlson is no longer the Capitals’ third shooter! (Rejoice, dear ones. We did it. Obviously.)
Janne Kuokkanen and T.J. Oshie were both unsuccessful. Jaccob Slavin and Evgeny Kuznetsov were both unsuccessful. Philip Di Giuseppe and Alex Ovechkin were both unsuccessful.
And, then, while expecting the second round of the shootout, everyone witnessing this spectacle entered the Twilight Zone.
Dougie Hamilton scored, striking fear into the hearts of Caps fans everywhere. And then our beloved Garden Gnome reminded us that worry is for the weak and put one past Scott Darling.
Justin Williams and Lars Eller were both unsuccessful.
Brock McGinn was unsuccessful.
And then Jakub Vrana strode out onto the ice and reminded us all that he did not come here to play — he came here to excel.
The time and effort he’s putting in away from the eyes of the media have rewarded him with a productive last few weeks. It’s hard to imagine that, just weeks ago, we were wondering whether Vrana might be better suited for the third, or even fourth, line. He’s established himself as a much more consistent offensive threat, gunning for what was previously considered Andre Burakovsky’s spot to lose. With Vrana’s contract (and Burakovsky’s as well) coming up at the end of the season, they’ve been increasingly played off as competitors for the same roster spot. With Vrana looking right at home in the top six and adding a dash of shootout heroics to the mix, Burakovsky, who has been a healthy scratch for each of the last two games, looks to be the odd man out (at least for now).
So the Capitals liked this shootout thing enough against Carolina that they decided they wanted to do it again tonight!
Jack Eichel scored his first goal of the night, thanks to Reinhart and Dahlin, but Brett Connolly evened the score a minute later, earning Devante Smith-Pelly an assist. Jakub Vrana scored his tenth of the season off an assist from Evgeny Kuznetsov, continuing the heroics from the game against Carolina. He’s benefitting tremendously from playing with Kuznetsov, and I love how Kuzy’s creativity paired with Vrana’s vision and awareness makes every shift that line takes dynamic. I’m not the biggest fan of Wilson, but he’s earned his spot in the top six with his intelligent offensive play, in between all the theatrics and woolly mammoth sized blunders. What matters is that Vrana has been playing incredible hockey on Kuznetsov’s wing, and I like his chances at staying there.
The second period saw two Buffalo power-play goals during the first half of the frame — one by Eichel and one by Dahlin, bringing the latter to three points on the night. The first goal was allowed on a Kempny hooking penalty, the second on a Madison Bowey hooking call. Madison Bowey, currently leading the team despite being on the ice for less that fourteen minutes a night (and on a team which includes Evgeny Kuznetsov, why is anyone else leading the penalty race?), has averaged a minor every other game so far this season.
Ovechkin scored his twenty-ninth of the season, obviously raring to go in an attempt to try for his third consecutive hattrick, but it wasn’t to be — the third period came and went, with only a delay of game penalty against Marco Scandella of the Sabres as proof that it really happened.
The Capitals and Sabres traded penalties in overtime, but five minutes came and went with no scores for either team, and for the second time in as many games, the Capitals headed to the shootout.
T.J. Oshie and Jack Eichel were both unsuccessful, but the Capitals pulled ahead 1-0 with a Kuznetsov goal, while Tage Thompson waffled. Nicklas Backstrom as unsuccessful, but Casey Mittelstadt was, requiring the Capitals to call a fourth shooter up. Thankfully, that fourth shooter is Alexander Ovechkin, who put one away to win the game for the Capitals, as Jason Pominville was unsuccessful in evening the score.
The second period was Nasty, and it deserves that capital N. While the Sabres actually drew one more penalty than the Capitals, the fact that the night ended with six penalties drawn and five penalties served for the Caps didn’t bode well. The Capitals cannot expect that the opponent will give them as many chances on the power-play as they do — hockey isn’t, as much as the Caps love to assume, a game motivated by sharing. Buffalo only converted on two of the five power plays they were allowed, but the Capitals converted on zero of six, which is much, much worse.
It might be time for a special teams shakeup.
Maybe that’s where Reirden can put Andre Burakovsky.
Roster Spot Musical Chairs
- To IR: Christian Djoos (lower body — thigh surgery, no timetable for return)
Next Week’s Games
- 19th December: Pittsburgh Penguins @ Washington Capitals, 8:00pm EST
- 21st December: Buffalo Sabres @ Washington Capitals, 7:00pm EST
- 22nd December: Washington Capitals @ Ottawa Senators, 7:00pm EST
Full disclosure, I just saw the Penguins’ 15-11-6 record and squawked in confusion. Despite ranking eighth league wide in goals for (11) and twenty-first for goals against (104), the Penguins have been losing more than they’ve been winning, and are currently holding onto third place in the Metropolitan Division. The answer to why? Injuries.
They’ve suffered two major injuries in the last two weeks — Patric Hornqvist, who was playing major power play minutes for the Pens, was placed on Injured Reserve on the 6th of December and is still uncertain for Wednesday’s match against the Capitals, and Kris Letang, who’s missed a game with a lower body injury, may also miss their tilt on Monday against the Anaheim Ducks. This is in addition to the already missing Justin Schultz, who’s due to return after the New Year at the earliest, and Dominik Simon, who’s been on IR for more than two weeks now. Despite above league average scoring, power play conversion, and a penalty kill that’s top ten in the league, the Pens have gone 9-9 since meeting the Capitals last in early November, a match that they dropped 2-1 to the Caps. Even though the Pens’ last visit to D.C. was preceded by a four game losing streak that the Capitals graciously extended to five, the Pens might arguably be worse than they were then.
Especially given that this is an in division match in an incredibly tight race for playoff spots, the Capitals should take full advantage. No pity here. Avoid special teams play, as the Pens’ PK shouldn’t be tested, and bathe in their blood for sport. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but this team seems to thrive on drama. Hopefully Tom Wilson understands that I’m kidding.
Well, we sure did show those Sabres who’s boss (of the Metropolitan Division!). Hopefully they’ll still be smarting from last week’s loss. Unfortunately, the Sabres know our special teams secrets, so Reirden’s Great Reir-ranging better happen before the Sabres come over to our house again next week. (The Capitals’ lone visit to Buffalo this season comes at the end of February.)
Rasmus Dahlin is emerging as a legitimate threat on the Sabres’ blueline, and would be an outright lock for the Calder if he hadn’t started in the league at the same time as fellow countryman and Vancouver Canuck Elias Pettersson. If it had been any other year, Dahlin could’ve taken the trophy home now. Neither are expected to be available for the World Juniors later this month, as they’ve proven too valuable to their NHL teams to lose. What I’m saying is that the kid might be young, but the Caps (and we, as the fans) cannot underestimate him again. I don’t know what the thought process was last week, but that infant child put up a three point night and made the Caps’ power play look like fools.
Eyes on Eichel, Skinner, and Dahlin at all times, basically. If we stop them, we stop the Sabres. Reinhart might put up a fight, but he’s a Reinhart. You don’t have to lose sleep over him.
The only team the Capitals are playing this week that’s worse than the Detroit Red Wings, the Ottawa Senators have thirty-two points in the standings this season, good for seventh place in the Atlantic Division. The only team worse is the Florida Panthers, who have three games in hand over the Sens, so I can’t imagine the joy of seventh place will last for long.
While rookies like Lajoie, Tkachuk, Formenton (dearly departed due to a leg injury), and White have been revelations for the Senators, the team has hovered around .500 all season. They’ve never won more than three games in a row, and every hastily cobbled together string of wins has been followed by an almost as long string of losses. The Sens are a streaky bunch, and before they face the Capitals at the end of the week, they have to go through the Predators and Devils (against whom they won’t even have the benefit of home field advantage, though, if Melnyk is in charge of your home field, is that even an advantage?) first.
The good news: They’re league last in goals against, with 132, and seventh league wide in goals for with 112. While they’ve got the Caps on goals for, the -30 goal differential means that this is likely to be a bleeder of a game — if the Caps can shore up goaltending in their last match before the Christmas break and keep their goals allowed low, this could be a good opportunity for yet another Ovechkin hat trick. Or, honestly, give somebody else a hatty.
Hell, give Jakub Vrana a hatty. He’s been working very hard.
Or Travis Boyd could do it! I trust him.
Anyone on this team could get a hattrick and I wouldn’t even bat an eye at this point.
Oh, what a world we live in. I just wish the Senators were living in it too.
This Week In Review
The Caps have converted on only two power plays of eleven this week (T.J. Oshie vs Detroit, Alex Ovechkin vs Carolina), which is about an eighteen percent conversion rate. While their overall power-play conversion percentage of 26.26% looks much better, and has them at fifth in the league, behind the Jets (30.19%), Avalanche (29.82%), Lightning (29.31%), and Panthers (27.5%), they’re performing worse than they look. Early season success is masking the current problems of a power-play that has allowed as many goals as it’s scored. It’s time for a change — all the conversions this week have come from the Capitals’ PP1 unit (Kuznetsov, Backstrom, Oshie, Ovechkin, and Carlson), so maybe it’s time to shuffle the second unit (Vrana, Eller, Wilson, Niskanen, and Orlov) around.
Considering the Capitals’ willingness to ice four forwards on the first unit, it might be a good idea to replicate that success on the second unit — though Matt Niskanen is good compared to other Power Play Skater 4s, it might be a good idea to reduce the demand on him as he ages. Ovechkin and Backstrom may not be heeding the call of nature’s aging curve, but that doesn’t mean we can’t ignore everyone else. While I’m of the mind that Connolly doesn’t need any more pressure than he’s currently got, he might be a good one off in the second penalty unit — if he proves his worth in a special teams slot, that could make him a much more valuable asset come free agency. When Burakovsky earns his way back into the lineup (and I assume he will), he should get a try there as well — though he’s scored a maximum of two goals with the man advantage in each of his five seasons in the NHL, it might be the display of trust Burakovsky needs to find his footing again.
A three game winning streak is awesome, and calls to mind the monster of a winning streak the Capitals had just weeks ago, but it doesn’t mean that the team can be complacent. Complacency is what broke the streak the last time — Kuznetsov and a host of others admitted that they saw that they’d scored five goals and then checked out. Reirden and his staff are likely working out new solutions as we speak, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see another new look being tried out soon.
The Andre Burakovsky sized cloud that’s hung over the team all week remains in place — he hasn’t played in the last three games, and is being tried out on the fourth line in practice. With only eight points in twenty-nine games and his history of hand and wrist injuries, it’s easy to see why Burra doesn’t inspire confidence in the coaching staff. His only goal of December came in Arizona, over two weeks ago, and his last goal before that was in New Jersey, on the 30th. Burakovsky hasn’t played more than sixty-four games in a season since 2015-16, and having missed four already, his chances at posting more than seventy-five games played this season are looking slim, especially if he doesn’t do something to distinguish himself soon.
(Picture Credit: NBC Sports)