Barring a catastrophic end to the regular season, the Washington Capitals should qualify for the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs with relative ease. Head coach Peter Laviolette’s team, just under halfway through the campaign, sit third in the Metropolitan Division, nine points ahead of the Eastern Conference’s final wild card berth.
Although the last seven days were tough on the Capitals — Washington head into their next fixture on a four-game losing streak — they’re still in a good place as mid-January approaches. It’s also worth remembering how freakish some of the team’s recent losses were, a run that includes the delayed-penalty own goal that sparked a Minnesota Wild comeback.
With that said, now is the perfect time to think about the five storylines that will define the second half of the Capitals’ regular season, starting with the team’s misfiring power play and possible trade targets.
Will the Capitals’ Power Play Struggles Continue?
When a team scores a power-play goal and their regional broadcaster responds like this, it’s safe to assume they’ve struggled on the man-advantage.
In the Capitals’ case, you would be right to make that assumption. Washington’s 14.8 percent clip on the power play places them fifth-last in the NHL, besting only the league’s basement dwellers in Montreal, Detroit, New Jersey, and Arizona.
The oft-heard complaints about Washington’s performances on the man-advantage are that the team is painfully slow at gaining zone entries and much too predictable once they’ve found a way into the final third. Alex Ovechkin, he of the Hart Trophy-calibre season, is widely regarded as part of the problem due to his general lack of movement when the Caps have the upper hand in a 5-v-4 situation. But that might not be entirely fair.
Although it’s accurate to portray Ovechkin’s efforts on the power play as being limited to his office in the left circle, he has enjoyed success this season. He’s got six goals and six assists through 37 games, which compares favourably to his nine goals and eight assists in 45 outings last term.
So, what’s the issue with Washington’s power play? Ovechkin’s lack of movement on the power play is a problem — but it’s not as concerning as the rest of the team’s goal-shyness. John Carlson is the Caps’ second most prolific player with three goals, while Evgeny Kuznetsov’s 10-point tally trails the team-leading Ovechkin by two.
Given the Capitals’ track record for underperformance on the power play, this is a storyline that could rumble on into the postseason.
Will the Capitals Trade for a Goalie?
In a repeat of last season’s form between the pipes, Washington’s goalies are still consistently inconsistent. Neither Vitek Vanecek nor Ilya Samsonov has staked a convincing claim for the starter’s job, with Laviolette rotating his tandem while throwing Zach Fucale into the mix.
As it stands, Samsonov is the biggest beneficiary from Washington’s goaltending tossup. The Russian tends to perform strongly when reintroduced to the starting lineup, although his underlying numbers are less impressive than Vanecek’s.
The question of the hour, then, is whether the Capitals will move to bring in a new goalie before the deadline. General manager Brian MacLellan will need to be creative if he opts to pull the trigger — Washington is low on cap space and understandably reluctant to deal their emerging Hershey Bears.
There’s lots of speculation about Marc-Andre Fleury’s future with the Chicago Blackhawks unlikely to make the playoffs — however, Washington isn’t a likely destination for the Canadian given his cap hit. As a result, the Capitals’ goaltending conundrum isn’t going away anytime soon, especially as Samsonov and Vanecek are pending restricted free agents (RFA).
Will the Capitals Re-Sign Their RFAs?
Speaking of RFAs, Washington has a few to deal with in addition to their netminders. Versatile winger Daniel Sprong is the biggest name on the Capitals’ list of pending RFAs, with Dennis Cholowski, Brett Leason, Beck Malenstyn, Joe Snively, and Lucas Johansen also on expiring deals.
Sprong, who turns 25 in March, has performed solidly following his trade from the Anaheim Ducks, providing 19 goals and 12 assists in 72 appearances. He’s currently on pace to set a new career high for goals in a season, with his latest strike coming against the St. Louis Blues. However, he hasn’t made the progress many expected of him.
Although Sprong isn’t in a strong position to demand a significant raise on his $750,000 per season contract, MacLellan will still have to consider if renewing his deal is good value for the cap-strapped Caps.
Of Washington’s other RFAs, Leason is the most intriguing. The 22-year-old made his NHL debut earlier this season and has since registered six points (three goals, three assists) in 25 appearances. He’s 6-foot-5 and provides a serious physical presence at 225 pounds. Could a two-way deal be in order for a player yet to find his scoring touch at the senior level?
Can Ovechkin Continue His Scoring Form?
In case you missed it, Ovechkin broke another NHL record last week — becoming the league’s all-time leading power-play goal scorer. The 36-year-old Russian has enjoyed a magical season for the Capitals so far — but does he have enough fuel in the tank to continue his form through the second half of the season?
One element to consider is that the NHL’s Winter Olympic withdrawal could help him sustain his offensive production, as travelling to Beijing would’ve used up a lot of his energy just before the Capitals entered the final stretch. Although not having the chance to compete for his country will come as a disappointment, it could boost his NHL form in the long term.
Olympics aside, Ovechkin is a strong contender to scoop individual awards this season. With the Edmonton Oilers on the slide, his play in the second half of the regular season will be decisive in his private tussle with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in the race for the Hart. He also remains in contention for the Rocket Richard Trophy, though Auston Matthews’ surge could prove troublesome.
Ovechkin has 24 goals and 28 assists through 37 games. If he continues to score at this rate, he’ll have 152 points by the end of the season. His race to overcome Wayne Gretzky’s goals record will be a key storyline to watch as the campaign heats up.
Will Washington’s Overtime Slump Drag-On?
There’s no other way to say it: the Capitals are historically bad in overtime. Laviolette’s side are still winless in games that are decided in an extra frame, with age and fatigue a factor in their dismal 2-9 post-regulation record.
“I thought we played well tonight,” Laviolette said after Washington’s shootout loss to Minnesota. “It’s disappointing on the results. You talk about the first goal and then they tie it up at the end and win in a shootout. So, it leaves you with a really lousy taste in your mouth. But I thought the guys put up a pretty good effort.”
It wasn’t the first time the 57-year-old praised his team’s work ethic after a one-point night — it’s been a theme this season. As a result, Washington’s ability to snap out of their overtime curse will be a key plot to watch as the season progresses.
Up Next for the Capitals
Washington travel to Elmont to face the New York Islanders on Saturday in the NHL’s matinee faceoff. After a horrible start to their season, the Islanders are 3-1-1 through their last five games and have started to click, with their last multi-goal loss coming 12 games ago.
The Capitals should expect a difficult afternoon at UBS Arena, with their hosts aiming to continue their resurgence. A loss for Washington will see their losing run extend to five games. If the Caps want to address some of the storylines that will define the second half of their season, winning in New York would be a good place to start.
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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.