After a bewildering start to the season, the Washington Capitals enter the festive period flying high in the standings and in good spirits.
Although the Caps have fulfilled more of their fixtures than the teams around them, head coach Peter Laviolette’s side has occupied a playoff spot all season – and won’t be slipping out of contention in the Metropolitan Division any time soon.
In fact, the Capitals have surpassed all of the expectations placed upon them in the preseason, battling through adversity in a way that should worry their prospective playoff opponents. ‘If Father Time and an injury crisis won’t stop Washington this season, who (or what) will?’ rival GMs will wonder.
But – as it’s almost Christmas – it’s worth thinking about the three presents that came early for the Capitals this year. Because if general manager Brian MacLellan and Laviolette did write to a man with a grey beard (Santa Claus, not a certain Russian forward), he’s delivered what they asked for.
The Hershey Bears Stepping Up
Nobody could’ve predicted the Hershey Bears’ emergence as a de facto NHL franchise. But you can’t deny the American Hockey League’s influence on the Capitals this year.
With Washington struck by an absurd injury crisis, Laviolette and MacLellan were forced to promote a bunch of players that otherwise wouldn’t have seen much ice time in the NHL this year. Vitally, those call-ups have never looked out of place.
Related: Capitals’ Rookies Covering For Injury Crisis in Washington
Just three months into the season, Connor McMichael, Martin Fehrevary, Brett Leason, Aliaksei Protas, and Beck Malenstyn have already made at least 10 NHL appearances.
While McMichael and Fehrevary are the Capitals’ biggest success stories – having earned middle six and top pair roles – that Washington has effectively covered an injury crisis by committee is frighteningly impressive, and the players agree.
“We’ve shown that there’s a lot of young guys with talent and that there’s a lot of talent in Hershey,” McMichael said last month. “It’s great for these guys to be succeeding, myself included, and that we’re able to step up into the opportunity that we’ve been given with all the guys injured. Now we’re looking to keep things rolling and helping the team win.”
The success of Washington’s youngers also shows up in the numbers, they lead the NHL for rookies with a point (nine) 31 games into the season.
Of course, the Capitals would’ve preferred not to have gone through an injury spree – but their Hershey callups cannot be faulted. They’ve been a breath of fresh air all season long.
Alex Ovechkin’s Hart Trophy Form
Alex Ovechkin, 36, is off to the best start of his NHL career season. He’s snapping records at a frightening rate and is well and truly on a collision course with Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record.
Earlier this month, Ovechkin tied the record for powerplay goals by scoring from his office against Marc-Andre Fleury. Although it’s just another goal for the Russian in the grand scheme of things, it symbolizes something of existential importance to the Caps.
Only in 2007-08 and 2008-09 did Ovechkin average more time on ice than he has so far this season. He’s playing 22:03 per night and looks as sharp as he has at any point in his 17-year NHL career.
Perhaps most remarkably, Ovechkin is delivering for the Capitals despite making minimal impact on the powerplay while sharing a line with a rotating cast of middle and bottom sixers.
Let’s start with Ovi’s dominance at even strength: he’s notched 36 points (16 goals, 20 assists) in 31 games and is shooting more often and accurately than he has in years. Combine that with the fact he has spent 80 minutes playing on the opposite wing to Protas (who few expected to make the jump to the big show this year), and it’s impossible not to be impressed.
Ovechkin will mop up Hart Trophy votes if he continues to perform at his current level. He might even win it – and what a belated Christmas gift that would be.
Capitals’ Success at Five-on-Five
Shout it from the rooftops: the Capitals are the NHL’s most prolific franchise at five-on-five, scoring 79 goals in 31 games. Laviolette’s team is also keeping the backdoor shut, conceding the tenth fewest goals in the league (50) when everybody is on the ice.
Last night’s loss to the Los Angeles Kings aside, Washington has defended smartly this year. Laviolette settled on his defensive pairs early, and his side has benefited greatly as a result, with all three units above water in terms of their expected goals share.
|Pair||Type||Minutes||Games||xGoals %||xGoals For||xGoals Against||xGoals For|
Per 60 Minutes
Per 60 Minutes
If the Capitals could’ve asked for anything from Santa this Christmas, they would’ve requested a defensive ensemble that could hold their own in pressure situations against high-quality opponents. As third pairs go, Nick Schultz and Trevor van Riemsdyk are an impressive duo – capable of keeping high-quality chances in their own end to a premium.
Baring in mind Washington’s defense started the season under a cloud (remember when Michal Kempny’s demotion caused a minor panic?), Laviolette will be thrilled with how they’ve fared so far.
Dear Santa: A Final Request from Washington
If one thing hasn’t gone to plan in D.C. this season, it would be the number and severity of injuries the team has sustained. Although Nicklas Backstrom is now back in the fold (minus his current stint on the NHL’s COVID Protocol list), the Capitals can’t afford to lose any more players to long-term injury this season.
So, if the Caps are planning to send another request to Santa, it might read something like this:
“Please, Mr. Claus, can our players stay healthy in 2022?”
In the current climate, it would be a sensible gift to ask for.