It happened again. For the fourth time in 10 games, the Washington Capitals fell in overtime on Thursday night, this time against the Florida Panthers. The Capitals’ latest OT loss saw their record slip to 5-1-4 to start the season, placing them third in the Metropolitan Division behind the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes.
While it’s still early, we’ve seen enough from Peter Laviolette’s side to have an inkling as to where they are headed. They are good and will improve further, but is this Capitals team bound for greatness?
If the Caps are to lift the Stanley Cup in 2022, they must address five early-season talking points.
Capitals’ Rookies Have Delivered
In a campaign that is only 10 games old, Laviolette has already handed NHL debuts to Hendrix Lapierre, Brett Leason, and Aliaksei Protas. Lapierre scored in his debut, Leason has two points in three games, and Protas drew praise for his performance against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The kids can play.
More importantly, though, has been the emergence of Connor McMichael and Martin Fehervary. McMichael has provided competent injury coverage in the bottom-six and is starting to look like a legitimate NHL forward – albeit one who continues to struggle in the faceoff circle. The Canadian has excelled – but at an altogether different level to his Slovak teammate.
Fehervary has been excellent through 10 games and is now one of the first names on the teamsheet. The 22-year-old started the preseason as a player on the fringes of the Capitals’ roster. He now shares the blue line with John Carlson. That’s growth.
The task at hand for Washington’s rookies is simple: keep it up. If they do, Laviolette and Co. will be in a strong position once their injury luck turns.
Injuries: Nic Dowd, T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, Anthony Mantha
‘Why have the Capitals deployed so many young players?’ I hear you ask. Well, they’ve had a lot of injuries. Nicklas Backstrom, the team’s star centre, has yet to make an appearance, while forwards Nic Dowd and T.J. Oshie have suffered ailments of their own.
In defence, the situation is different. Aside from Michal Kempny, who is continuing his road to recovery with the Hershey Bears, the Capitals’ blueliners have stayed healthy.
Injuries will define the rest of Washington’s season. It’s vital that Backstrom bounces back quickly, but it’s even more important that the Capitals avoid further injury trouble. If they don’t, it could be a long season for Laviolette and his coaching staff as they reshuffle the lineup from game to game.
Is Alex Ovechkin’s Form Sustainable?
Well, you should never bet against the Russian.
To start the season, Alex Ovechkin has notched 18 points (10 goals, eight assists) in 10 games. He was named the NHL’s October Player of the Month and is now just one strike shy of matching Brett Hull’s 741-goal tally.
Ovechkin’s early season form also saw him become the first player to reach the 10-goal mark in an NHL season for the third time in his career.
Let’s look at this another way. We’re an eighth of the way into the season, and a 36-year-old is on pace for 82 goals and 148 points. If Ovechkin continues to produce offence at that kind of rate for the rest of the season, it’ll be the greatest achievement of his career.
You simply cannot overestimate his importance to the Capitals.
Washington’s Overtime Woes Cannot Continue
The Capitals’ overtime funk is becoming worrisome. They’re winless at 3-on-3 this term and were beaten convincingly by the Panthers.
“We got to overtime and never really got possession of the puck,” Laviolette said after the defeat in Florida. “It’s frustrating to not get the second point.”
Losing in the extra frame is starting to become a habit.
The Capitals’ OT troubles began on Oct. 16, when they gave up a 1-0 lead in the third period against Tampa. A week later, the Caps fought back from a 3-0 deficit against the Calgary Flames only to allow Elias Lindholm to complete his hattrick in overtime. A bewildering loss against the Detroit Red Wings followed thereafter.
As a point of urgency, the Capitals need to find a way of winning at 3-on-3 without Oshie and Backstrom on the ice. If they can’t, their fight for a playoff berth will grow increasingly difficult.
Capitals’ Goaltending Remains Reliably Unreliable
Much like Fehervary, Vitek Vanecek entered 2021-22 with an uphill battle on his hands. He was left exposed for the expansion draft and was ultimately selected by the Seattle Kraken. The Czech goalie was then sent back to D.C. in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2023 NHL Draft.
As a result, Ilya Samsonov was expected to be the Capitals’ lead goalie this season. Thus far, he hasn’t been.
Vanecek currently has the upper hand over Samsonov in goals against average (GAA) and save percentage (SV%). The 1996-born shot-stopper has also surpassed Samsonov on the depth chart.
Even so, there are reasons to be concerned. Vanecek’s .902 SV% and 2.49 GAA places him in the bottom half of NHL goalies – which isn’t good enough for a team that is trying to contend for a Cup.
Can Laviolette trust his tandem? It remains to be seen.
Up Next For the Capitals
Washington will take to the ice six times in the next 12 days, including back-to-back fixtures against the Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets. Of the Capitals’ upcoming games, their meeting with an injury-hit Pittsburgh Penguins roster stands out as an opportunity to make a statement.
Ultimately, though, the Capitals enter the next stretch of the season needing to take a step forwards. An overtime win would do Washington a world of good, but it’s in the treatment room where change is needed the most.
If the Caps can get healthy, they’re in for a strong season. But that’s a big if.
Luke is an award-winning sports journalist from the UK, who covers the Washington Capitals for THW. He is a recent graduate from the University of Warwick and is currently studying a postgraduate degree in Newspaper Journalism at City, University of London. To stay up-to-date with Luke’s work, you can find his tweets via @LukeJames_32.