The Washington Capitals defeated the New York Rangers 5-1 in their season opener last night. It’s time to unjustifiably overreact and judge how the season will unfold based on one game and not the remaining 81. If that’s the case, things are looking good for the most part.
However, that isn’t the case, but the Capitals did play well, nonetheless. There were two facets to focus on heading into last night: the blue line and center depth. Yet, the game ultimately was all about the penalties.
Capitals Peform Well in Season Opener
The rivalry has regained its spark. The game was played with high energy and physicality from the start, and New York was the intimidator and instigator. The Rangers outhit the Capitals 13-6 in the first period and outshot them 9-6. In the end, the hits remained lopsided, favoring the Rangers 27-12, but Washington found its offense at the midpoint of the game, leading to a convincing victory.
The Capitals had a so-so preseason that left more concerns than the issues that needed to be solved. Their blue line and the youth at forward were being monitored closely in the season opener, but it was the power play and penalty kill that stood out.
Capitals Blue Line
The blue line pairings heading into the season were hard to predict. With Brenden Dillon being traded to the Winnipeg Jets and Michal Kempny returning after two major injuries, questions were certainly aplenty—especially on the left side. One was answered: Kempny was waived after his slow start in the preseason. Martin Fehervary was expected to make the opening night roster, Trevor van Riemsdyk would offer some quality depth, and the veterans needed to play great. All of that happened on Wednesday.
Nick Jensen played very fast and physical, even rocketing a goal that was later negated after replay proved offsides happened just a moment before. Justin Schultz scored on the power play, and though we tend to measure a defenseman’s production on what he does on the offensive end, the defense actually played defense. They outskated forwards to the puck, checked well, helped block 15 shots and earned five takeaways.
In addition, Vitek Vanecek proved he was the right choice in net. The young goalie stopped 23 of 24 shots and looked very comfortable in the crease.
Capitals Forward Depth
Another hole on the team needed to be filled after Nicklas Backstrom hurt his hip (that’s not an old man jab, either). Center depth was an issue last season due to Evgeny Kuznetsov’s troubles with COVID and Lars Eller suffering an injury. With Alex Ovechkin also banged up, the offense, once considered the most stable aspect of Washington’s game, had to rely on inexperienced youth, highlighted by the surprising Hendrix Lapierre.
Lapierre started a tad shaky but settled in during the second period and showed his poise and skill. He netted his first career goal on a beautiful pass by T.J. Oshie. The offense as a whole played inspired, but it took them about half the game to gain some momentum. Ovechkin, who was a game-time decision, finished with four points, including two goals which pushed him past Marcel Dionne and into fifth for most goals in NHL history. Kuznetsov added three assists on the night, and nine different Capitals recorded at least one point.
Power Play and Penalty Kill
There were a total of 34 minutes spent in the penalty box between both teams. It was the Capitals who took advantage, though. Washington went 3-for-6 on the power play. The issue is their even-strength offense. If you count Ovechkin’s short-handed tally, they only scored one even-strength goal. They had trouble generating quality chances, especially early. It took them almost 12 minutes to register their first shot of the second period, and nine of their 27 total shots came on the man advantage.
On the other hand, they excelled on the penalty kill. The Rangers’ lone goal came via a gorgeous Chris Kreider shot. Other than that, New York went 1-for-5 on the power play, also producing nine shots. Eller was guilty of four of their 16 penalty minutes, which is something to note because he is a critical penalty killer.
Though it’s great that Wayne Gretzky is on the analyst’s table, hopefully, we get to see more of Charles Barkley. Also, from a production standpoint, the power play timer on the ice is a nice touch by TNT, but some other graphics were a little much, and it seemed like the referee’s microphone was turned up a tad.
Capitals Looked Good
They didn’t appear to be the physical presence teams are usually intimidated by; it will be there, but it will be matched. They started the game playing with grit as if they had the drive of an underdog, but soon they settled, found some momentum, and finished with the confidence of a contender.
It’s very early, and despite the tone of the intro, patience is vital—and much more practical than exaggeration. There are 81 games remaining, and the Capitals are aware there will still be a learning curve and a “getting-to-know-you” type of feel to the lines. However, though there is seemingly no rush, it would be wise for head coach Peter Laviolette, who became the winningest American-born head coach in NHL history (674) with the victory, to figure out what works best sooner rather than later, and get their even-strength offense to execute more efficiently.
Though the first game doesn’t mean much, it still showed a lot.
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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