It took until the third period for the Washington Capitals to break the deadlock against the Arizona Coyotes on Friday night. An inspired performance from rookie netminder Karel Vejmelka kept Washington off the scoreboard until the final eight minutes of play, only for John Carlson and Alex Ovechkin to fire the Caps to victory in the closing exchanges.
Taken at face value, a 2-0 win over a resolute – albeit tanking – Coyotes squad is not something to write home about from a Capitals’ perspective. After all, Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette’s team is yet to lose in regulation and was heavy favorites headed into their meeting with Arizona.
However, Washington’s latest win is worth thinking about. Really, it is.
Why? Because it was another demonstration of this team’s bounce-back ability. Granted, it was the kind of fixture that the Capitals should be winning – but there are three reasons why their shutout victory is notable (plus one point on.)
Alex Ovechkin Ties Connor McDavid for Scoring Lead
Through eight appearances, Ovechkin has 15 points (nine goals, six assists) and is two goals away from tying Brett Hull for fourth in NHL history. Now a 36-year-old veteran, the Russian has started the season by winding back the clock and is performing at a level few pundits foresaw.
His teammates aren’t shocked, though.
“I don’t think [his form is] a surprise,” Carlson said. “He’s only done it for 17 other years too. So maybe he had one down year out of 17 or whatever it is. So, no, there’s no surprise from us.”
Ovechkin’s empty-net goal against Arizona saw him match his 2009-10 record for the fewest games required to register 15 points. He leads the NHL in goals (9) and is tied with Connor McDavid in the points-scoring race.
Ovechkin also had a hand in Washington’s opening goal, providing the assist to Carlson’s power-play effort. Fourteen games have now passed since the Russian last failed to register a point. He’s on fire.
Yep, even by Ovechkin’s standards, his start to the season has been mightily impressive.
Injuries Hand Brett Leason Unexpected Debut
The Capitals are in the midst of an injury crisis. It was bad enough that Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie were unavailable. But then Nic Dowd went down during the pregame skate, leaving the Caps a forward short for the visit of Arizona.
Earlier in the day, Leason was called up from the Hershey Bears to act as Washington’s 13th forward. The 22-year-old wasn’t expected to play for the Capitals… until Dowd’s injury, that is.
In the end, Leason, a second-rounder in 2019, skated 8:40 against the Coyotes, recording a shot on goal and a block on his NHL debut.
His performance drew praise from his teammates and coaches.
“I thought he did a great job,” Connor Sheary said post-game. “He filled in well for us and had a couple of chances that almost went in. Hopefully, more of the same from him going forward.”
“I thought he was good,” Laviolette said. “His size was noticeable out there. I thought he came in and gave us good, solid minutes. He goes to the net, he is a big guy, he competes out there, and so I thought it was a good first game for him.”
Before his NHL call-up, Leason hadn’t enjoyed the most productive start to the season. In five American Hockey League appearances for the Bears, he registered one assist. He won’t be thinking about that now, though.
Ilya Samsonov Earns Fourth Career Shutout
It’s okay to acknowledge that the Coyotes aren’t an offensive powerhouse when noting Samsonov’s latest achievement.
While the Russian goalie only needed to make 16 saves to record his fourth shutout in the NHL, his performance was pleasing nonetheless.
“It was a little bit hard for me because hard to keep concentration,” Samsonov told reporters. “But I want to say thank you to my teammates. It was an unbelievable job today. A hard win today, but we all feel happy.”
The 24-year-old made a couple of impressive saves to keep Arizona off the board and improved to 3-0-1 as a result. Although Samsonov’s save percentage (.904) and goals-against average (2.43) still lag behind Vitek Vanecek’s, his play is headed in the right direction.
Flowers for Karel Vejmelka:
Finally, a thought on the Coyotes’ besieged rookie netminder.
It must be said – or, in this case, typed – that Vejmelka was awesome for the Coyotes. Washington dominated Arizona for 50 minutes but just couldn’t score.
Vejmelka, a former fifth-round pick by the Nashville Predators in 2015, hadn’t skated in North America before this season. Since entering the Coyotes’ crease, he has faced an average of 1.9 shots per minute. Given the circumstances, his .912 save percentage is fairly commendable.
Regardless, the Coyotes remain winless, and the Capitals remain unbeaten in regulation.
Luke is an award-winning freelance sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.