The Washington Capitals had an okay preseason that created more questions than the ones that needed to be answered. The blue line will still be the iffy facet of their game during the early part of the season, and the penalty kill appeared shaky enough to question its fifth-best ranking from 2020-21 (though their penalty-kill percentage was right in line at 83 percent). With injuries affecting the franchise’s two biggest faces of the last 15 years, depth has become an issue as well.
With a tough Metropolitan Division back to its normal form, the Capitals must be wary of a slow start to the season because limping into the postseason after stocking early points isn’t going to work. As this campaign begins, the Capitals are cautiously a playoff team.
Capitals will Be Battling for a Wild Card Spot Come Season’s End
On Oct. 8, the Capitals and their fan base held their collective breath for about a day after Alexander Ovechkin exited the game in the first period after sustaining a lower-body injury. He is listed as day-to-day, but his status for tomorrow’s season opener against the New York Rangers is still uncertain. Connor McMichael took line rushes in Ovechkin’s place during practice. This is an added blow considering Nicklas Backstrom is also still out, and there is no timetable for his return.
In the past, the Capitals have relied on a decent first half of the season and an average latter half that usually is enough for a division title or top seed in the playoffs. Since the 2018-19 campaign, they have looked exhausted by the time the postseason begins, and that was most apparent in their 2019 Game 7 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. The following year they were handily ousted by the New York Islanders, and the Boston Bruins dominated them in the first round in last season’s Stanley Cup Playoff. Beware of the aforementioned former two once again.
Capitals’ Metro Opponents
Last season, Washington was part of the MassMutual East Division and finished second behind the Pittsburgh Penguins. Two substitute foes, the Bruins and the Buffalo Sabres were part of the anomalous grouping, but all regular-season rivalries have since been restored.
Though the Capitals tied for the third-most points in the makeshift conference, some familiar opponents have progressed. Also, Carolina is back in the pack, and they won the Discover Central Division that included the Florida Panthers and the two-time reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and posted the best record in the conference. The days of the Capitals and Penguins battling it out for the division is over. It’s a tough road ahead for Washington, so let’s get the bad news out of the way first.
The Hurricanes are young, well-coached, and built for a deep postseason run. They’re coming off a great 2020-21 campaign, but the emergence onto the scene as a future contender took place in that first-round series upset over Washington in 2019. The Capitals were 2-1-1 against Carolina in 2019-20, but the two teams did not meet last year. Expect Carolina to give Washington trouble on their way to a division title.
First Meeting: Nov. 28 @ Carolina
New York Islanders
The Islanders will battle the Hurricanes for the division crown. The Capitals fared well against their rivals and ex-coach, winning six of eight a season ago, but the Islanders’ dominance in the 2020 bubble is a lingering thought.
New York also went to the Conference Final against Tampa Bay last season and took the series to seven games. This is a very good squad, and it will be tough for Washington to have similar regular-season success against them.
First Meeting: Dec. 23 @ New York
New York Rangers
Gerard Gallant is at the helm, and Mika Zibanejad just signed a deserving extension. The Rangers were on the rise last season but faltered before the playoffs, falling short of a wild card bid. It will be different in 2021-22. New York could finish third in the Metro, and they already are a thorn in Washington’s side. Get ready for the overreaction after tomorrow night’s contest. They split the season series at four games apiece in 2020-21.
First Meeting: Oct. 13 @ Washington
New Jersey Devils
The Devils will not finish at the bottom of the division this season, but they won’t finish in the top half either. However, New Jersey will give Washington more trouble than in years past. Of course, the Capitals were undefeated against the Devils in 2020-21, but the older the stars get, the more youth gives them fits.
New Jersey played Washington well in the preseason, probably exposing some areas they need to work on more than any other team. They aren’t going to be everyone’s easy out this go around.
First Meeting: Oct. 21 @ New Jersey
It’s strange to think that the Capitals and Penguins will be battling for a wild card spot rather than a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, but that may very well be the case this year. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both slated to miss time to start the season. Though Pittsburgh won the East last season, they are going to have as tough of a road as the Capitals. At least the rivalry will still have its sparks—hopefully.
First Meeting: Dec. 10 @ Washington
The Flyers’ rise and drop off were both sudden. In 2019-20, they looked like the team to beat in the Eastern Conference, but the momentum didn’t carry over to last season. Kevin Hayes could miss the first 10 games, and six other players were placed on the injured non-roster list. The Flyers should be better this year, but unfortunately for Philadelphia fans, they will miss out on the postseason again. However, they could serve as potential trappers or spoilers, so the Capitals should not overlook their other Pennsylvania rivals.
First Meeting: Nov. 6 @ Washington
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets will be the new bottom dweller of the division, but that doesn’t say much about them—rather how competitive the Metro will be this season. Washington didn’t meet Columbus in 2020-21, but the season before they were 1-2-0 versus the Blue Jackets. This is a different team, but always a dangerous one.
First Meeting: Nov. 12 @ Columbus
Capitals Cautiously a Playoff Team
This is going to be a tough season for Washington. Expect them to be battling for that third spot in the Metro, but could ultimately be jockeying for the second wild card slot considering how deep the whole conference is. What’s worrisome about it is that the Atlantic Division is loaded, and a potential first-round affair with the Panthers, Lightning, or Toronto Maple Leafs doesn’t sound that appealing.
The key will be the first stretch of the season, especially in the games without Backstrom. If they can sustain and earn a decent number of points early, it will put them in a better position for a late-season stretch—including a brutal five-game road trip.
Maybe it’s better this way. Maybe having little attention on them will lead to a surprise run. They need to first make the playoffs for that to happen. Here’s to cautiously hoping.
Carl Knauf is an author and master journalist (so the degree says). He specializes in sports–primarily hockey–music, and the publishing industry. His sports writing has been featured on The Hockey Writers, Last Word On Sports, and local newspapers in his home state of New Mexico. Carl covers the Washington Capitals with accurate reporting and detailed analysis to help readers answer basic and burning questions such as, “Why did the Capitals not win the Stanley Cup (again)?”
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