With both the 2021 NHL Expansion and Entry Drafts taking place days apart, and the subsequent free agency frenzy, the 2021-22 season schedules took a secondary role from an analysis perspective. The Washington Capitals, along with the other 31 franchises, have some key matchups to look forward to this upcoming season. Yet, in comparison to the last two pandemic-shortened years, every game is something to look forward to for players and fans alike.
Capitals’ Late-Season Road Trip Could Decide Fate
The Capitals have performed fairly well during the regular season the past 15 years. The playoffs are a much different tale, all but one climaxing with an unhappy ending. Since 2007, only one Eastern Conference team, the Boston Bruins, has a better regular-season win/point percentage than Washington. Yet, nine franchises have reached the Eastern Conference Final more times than the Capitals in that same span. A new chapter is ahead.
With the NHL schedule reverting to normal — hopefully we didn’t just jinx something — a familiar spacing of foes will return, as well as some old faces, and inter-division and -conference rivalries will be renewed. This upcoming season’s calendar for Washington includes six of their first 10 games at home, six of their last 10 games on the road, an early west-coast swing, four home stands of three or more games, four road stretches of three or more games, and 13 back-to-back contests. The All-Star break is slated for Feb. 4-5, and a possible Olympic pause could happen from Feb. 7-22.
February is up in the air, but there are many important dates Capitals fans should take note of, including four matchups in the first two weeks and a difficult five-game road trip during the last two weeks of the 2021-22 season.
Oct. 13 vs. New York Rangers
Nothing like dropping the puck on the new season by hosting a division rival. The Rangers are a team on the rise and, despite what New Yorkers will claim, didn’t have a long rebuild to get back to relevance. The Rangers on opening night will look a lot different than the Rangers at the end of the year (spoiler alert).
Oct. 16 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
The two-time defending Stanley Cup champions bring their encore parade to the district early. Though the Lightning lost Yanni Gourde to the Seattle Kraken and Tyler Johnson to the Chicago Blackhawks, they still landed veterans Brian Elliot and Corey Perry. They didn’t get incredibly better per se, but they didn’t get too worse — and they had some wiggle room in that area.
Oct. 19 vs. Colorado Avalanche
This game lost some of its personal luster when ex-Capital and Vezina-finalist Philipp Grubauer surprisingly signed a deal with Seattle — which is pending after being rejected by the NHL — essentially sending Vitek Vanecek back to Washington in a weird Capitals-heavy love triangle.
Nevertheless, the Avalanche remain the best team in the NHL, and when Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Cale Makar, et al. come to visit Capital One Arena, there will be no shortage of star power. Also, Andre Burakovsky will be back in town. The ex-Capital has one goal, two assists, and a plus-two rating in two games against his former squad.
Oct. 27 vs. Detroit Red Wings
Washington plays five of their first seven games in the comfort of Capital One Arena, and another big matchup features last year’s blockbuster trade with the Red Wings.
Anthony Mantha wanted to be an X-factor for the Capitals, and here’s his chance to prove that Steve Yzerman didn’t completely have his way with Washington management. Supporters also welcome back Jakub Vrana, and though it should be a warm return, fans may receive a glimpse of what they truly lost.
Nov. 11 @ Detroit Red Wings
No one is trying to force an inter-division rivalry here. However, it is still kind of lingering from the 1998 Stanley Cup Fina — especially for Capitals fans who can’t escape the memory of Esa Tikkanen missing an opportunity to close out Game 2, which Washington would end by blowing a lead en route to being swept. The Red Wings have been rebuilding long enough and are ready to get back to the postseason. The simmering rivalry between franchises of two vastly different stories could be renewed in the playoffs soon enough. Oh, and Mantha returns to Detroit if that matters to Red Wings supporters.
Nov. 14 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
It’s been a fun generation, hasn’t it? It will take a month, but Washington and Pittsburgh will meet for the first time on the season in one of the NHL’s best rivalries. The battle can go two ways the next few years: it will be even more intense as each goes for one more shot at glory before rebuilding, or it will be meaningless to hockey fans outside of the two cities as the aging Capitals and Penguins casually compete for final bragging rights as the window for each closes.
Nov. 21 @ Seattle Kraken
Now that Vanecek is no longer Seattle’s future in net, this game lost meaning save the first meeting with a new franchise. Vanecek was a member of the Kraken for a week before being traded back to Washington. The Capitals will now most likely face Grubauer for only the third time since being traded from Washington. Re-enter some meaning.
The netminder is 1-1 against his ex-team, allowing six goals and posting a save percentage of .901. This game is also the end of a four-game trip out west for Washington.
Nov. 24 vs. Montreal Canadians
The day before Thanksgiving, Washington will host the defending Stanley Cup runner-ups. Montreal still has to prove that its appearance in the final last season wasn’t a fluke. They played zero teams below the Canadian border last year before the semifinals and championship. Their record against two United States-based teams was 5-6.
Dec. 17 @ Winnipeg Jets
Brenden Dillon will skate against his former team for the first time since being traded. Though we expect every professional to act in such a manner, there will be the proverbial elephant weighing down the ice that the Capitals traded Dillon to free up cap space so Alexander Ovechkin could finalize his new five-year, $47.5 million contract.
Good thing Dillon patrols the opposite side of the ice. There surely will be no hard feelings. Maybe.
Dec. 23 @ New York Islanders
This will be the first time facing off against Barry Trotz on the season. Does this even matter anymore? Of course it does. Since leaving Washington, Trotz has guided the Islanders to the same amount of playoff series wins as the Capitals have won playoff games (5). Bitterness is a strong spice.
Jan. 10, 2022 vs. Boston Bruins
Though Washington’s rivalry against Boston isn’t quite as high-profile as their intra-Metropolitan jousts, it certainly doesn’t lack in intensity. The Capitals were embarrassed by the Bruins in last season’s postseason, and Tom Wilson continued his quest to not have any friends on other teams via hard hits. Star power and physicality will showcase this early-2022 bout, the first meeting between the two franchises since last year’s playoffs.
Jan. 18, 2022 vs. Winnipeg Jets
Winnipeg will not be a forced rivalry like Detroit. Dillon returns to Capital One Arena, and like Vrana, should be met with a warm welcome — depending on what happens Dec. 17, 2021, of course.
Jan. 24, 2022 vs. Vegas Golden Knights
It’s now been three seasons since Vegas’ storybook run to the Stanley Cup Final where they fell short against Washington. The Golden Knights have become a mainstay at the top of the league, while the Capitals are desperately searching for a way to regain relevance as a postseason threat.
Both teams will have aspirations of returning to the Final for a rematch of 2018. Unfortunately for Washington, Vegas has a more legitimate shot, but don’t write off the Capitals just yet.
Jan. 28, 2022 @ Dallas Stars
Welcome back to the ex-Capital goaltending carousel. Braden Holtby was bought out by the Vancouver Canucks and signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Stars this summer. He will have the opportunity to be in net against his former team, but Dallas’ goalie situation involves three very savvy veterans now, so load management is definitely a strategy in the crease for the Stars.
Feb. 1, 2022 @ Pittsburgh Penguins
Washington’s first trip to PPG Paints Arena comes about halfway through the season. The magnitude of this game won’t change from their first meeting on Nov. 14, 2021. It really hasn’t changed since 2005 — or 1991 for the older crowd.
March 5, 2022 vs. Seattle Kraken
Grubauer returns to D.C., and Capitals fans get to see the Kraken’s away jerseys. Cool.
March 15, 2022 vs. New York Islanders
Trotz makes his first appearance in the district, and given this is a late-season matchup, the crowd will be ready to rock the red. The Islanders will be in contention for a high-playoff seed most likely, and the Capitals could either be fighting for a similar spot or perhaps grinding for a wild card.
March 20, 2022 vs. Dallas Stars
Another return, but one with more emotion. Holtby never had the chance to play the Capitals as a member of the Canucks, and though he may have already tended goal against his former team before this meeting, it will be his first skate as an opponent in D.C.
A tribute may be in order for Holtby’s return. He was beloved in Washington but struggled to perform in Vancouver. Perhaps playing in front of his home country all year was tough.
April 14, 2022 @ Toronto Maple Leafs
This game serves as the beginning of a vital road trip for Washington. Not only do the Capitals have five straight games away from home, but they also visit the Maple Leafs, Canadiens, Avalanche, and Golden Knights before finishing in Arizona against the Coyotes. This stretch could make or break Washington’s season.
April 29, 2022 @ New York Rangers
Reference Oct. 13, 2021.
What Should the Capitals Expect in 2021-22?
Sports fans understand that being a pessimist can translate to being a realist. If you don’t believe that, then remember there will be 31 losers at the end of the upcoming season — moral victories are an invalid argument. This season will be a challenge for Washington. They have questions at center and defense. If Evgeny Kuztensov remains a wild card when he gets on the ice and continues his inconsistency, and the depth chart becomes depleted due to injury again, expect Connor McMichael to have a more frequent role on the roster. Also, Martin Fehevary will likely be called up from their American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears, and have to learn quickly how to play at a high level on an NHL blue line.
If Ilya Samsonov can be the goalie the organization believes he can be, and Vanecek can work off his great season in relief last year, then the Capitals will be solid in the crease. Ovechkin will come out firing, but it’s not as if he needs any extra motivation, and Mantha and Daniel Sprong need to prove their offensive prowess. Age (young and old), consistency, and that five-game road trip at the end of the season are what could decide Washington’s 2021-22 season. The pessimist says this could be a bridge year for the Capitals as they struggle to get a low-seed in the playoffs. The optimist says they win the Stanley Cup. One needs to believe in happy endings, the other needs to get real.
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 and Buffalo Sabres 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)?” and, “When will this damn Sabres rebuild finally end?”
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