Capitals Prepare for Playoff Run With Ovechkin Set to Return

The Washington Capitals have one game remaining in the 2020-21 NHL regular season. The team locked up the second seed in the MassMutual East division, and they battled through a key late stretch of the year without their captain. Alexander Ovechkin may skate tonight against the Boston Bruins, but the Capitals’ supporting cast stepped up in his absence.

Capitals Skated Well Without Ovechkin

Ovechkin has missed a total of 11 games this season. He sustained a lower-body injury in the third period against the New York Islanders on April 22. The captain did take one shift in the Capitals’ game with the New York Rangers on May 3, but that was the extent of his play for the week.

Alex Ovechkin Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Capitals’ star also missed four games in January due to being placed on the COVID-19 Unavailability List. Durability or trouble has never been an issue for Ovechkin; the superstar winger has only missed 30 games in 14 seasons prior to his January quarantine.

Even though uncertainty loomed for Washington after Ovechkin was injured, some key players stepped up for the team and maintained a high seed heading into the postseason. Here are the three stars.

T.J. Oshie

Oshie has been fantastic all year. The 34-year-old forward has scored 22 goals and added 21 assists this season—in what could be his last stint with the Capitals. It has been predicted that Washington will leave Oshie unprotected during the Seattle Kraken expansion draft.

Oshie would be a great fit in Seattle, so his motivation to perform is three-fold. He will look to close out his career as a Capital with another Cup run, he’s displaying his leadership and appreciation to a fanbase that has loved having him in the lineup, and he’s proving he can be the face of a new franchise in the state where he was born.  

He gave Capitals’ fans an emotional unforgettable performance on May 5, where he netted a hat trick—his first game after the death of his father. During Washington’s January stretch without Ovechkin, Oshie registered three points (one goal, two assists), but he has six goals in his last seven games with the captain out.

Unfortunately, Oshie did not practice on Monday after suffering a lower-body injury against the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday but is listed as day-to-day. He will not skate against Boston tonight. The Capitals are banged up and need to get healthy fast. Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson are also fending off nagging lower-body issues, however, the former is playing this evening and the latter is out.

Daniel Sprong

Have no fear, Capitals’ fans, Daniel Sprong is here. No goal-scorer has stepped up more in Ovechkin’s absence than Sprong. The winger has scored six goals in his last six games and has a plus-two rating. He has 13 goals and seven assists in just 41 games played this season, and a career-best plus-eight rating.

Sprong will need to be on the playoff roster, so finding out where he fits the best after Ovechkin’s return will be interesting. After acquiring Anthony Mantha from the Detroit Red Wings, the top two lines are set for the Capitals, and their fourth line is so solid together it won’t be disturbed. Sprong will need to mesh well with Lars Eller, who has also been outstanding of late, and Conor Sheary for Washington to go far in the playoffs.

The Fourth Liners

The aforementioned solid line of Nick Dowd, Carl Hagelin, and Garrett Hathaway has played tremendously all season. During the last eight games, the line has a plus-four rating and has produced five goals and four assists. Dowd has especially been picking up the slack. He has three goals and two assists of late, which is a third of his season points total. Three of his goals this year have been game-winners.

It’s not the points or the rating that matter, however, it’s the little things these guys do. They play physically and fast, they finish their checks, they win faceoffs, they provoke the stars on the other bench, and they skate with confidence. They’re grinders and they are balanced together.   

Looking Ahead

The Capitals are 8-2-2 without Ovechkin. What was impressive during this latest stretch was that the offense was able to still average 3.13 goals per game. That is below their season average of 3.38, and the stretch dropped them from second to fourth in the league for goals per game, but it isn’t bad considering this generation’s most prolific goal score wasn’t on the ice.

One area Washington must fix heading into the playoffs is the power play. Since Ovechkin’s injury, the Capitals are just 3-for-27 on the power play, and two of those tallies came against the Rangers when New York gifted Washington with seven extra-man advantages on May 5.

Of course, Ovechkin’s return should coincide with an immediate improvement. The captain has 17 power-play points this season (nine goals, eight assists), and his presence opens opportunities for other skaters to capitalize on.

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If Washington is to make a deep postseason run, they also must tighten up defensively. In the team’s last six contests, they are giving up three goals per game. That’s not terrible, but it’s also not going to get it done in the playoffs. This is especially worrisome because the Pittsburgh Penguins, the East winners and only opponent during that stretch who will be joining Washington in the playoffs, scored eight of the 18 allowed. In fact, Pittsburgh has netted 29 goals against them this season, the most the club gave up to any opponent.

Lastly, they need to rest and heal. Ovechkin et al need to be healthy.

If the Capitals are to get by the Boston Bruins in the first round, they need to be 100%, the power play must start producing, and the blue line has to be better, or it will be yet another early exit for a franchise whose window seems to always be creaking shut. They at least get a warm-up match against the Bruins before they see them on Saturday for the start of the postseason.

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