To say that the Washington Capitals took a hit to their roster this week is an understatement. With the sudden and surprising temporary disbandment of the Russian core comprising of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alexander Ovechkin, Dmitry Orlov, and goaltender Ilya Samsonov, no one really knew what to expect over the stint of games that they would miss. However, after witnessing the last few games, one could argue that this temporary four-game “suspension” due to breaking COVID protocol was a blessing in disguise.
It provides fans with more profound insight into what pieces the Capitals have in the future, and how they’ll perform when impactful players eventually leave the organization. The Capitals have played great hockey regardless of significant absences in all three positions over the past four games. Currently riding a two-game win streak, the first place, MassMutual East Capitals are 3-0-1 in their last stretch of games without their glowing Russian presence. There have been some high and some low points over the latest stretch.
Depth Stepped Up
When it comes to the Capitals, the depth isn’t usually brought up in conversation due to their first two lines. However, with stars like Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Orlov absent, some players have stepped up that normally don’t shine as bright. For starters, the offensive depth has exceeded expectations. Excluding veterans, four players contributed at least one point over the two games against the Buffalo Sabres and the one game against the New York Islanders. The Jan. 28 game against the Islanders saw Conor Sheary add two goals to the score sheet in the Capitals 6-3 victory.
As each game progressed, the depth looked more and more confident, sharing a bigger role than usual on the ice. Over the same stretch, the defensive depth has also demonstrated their worthiness. Defensemen like Justin Schultz and Brenden Dillion combined for two goals and five assists, for a total of seven combined points shared between both players on the defensive end.
Veterans Picking Up the Slack
Not only is the depth picking up the slack, but the veterans have also performed. Not much of a surprise to anyone, players like John Carlson, Nicklas Backstrom, Jakub Vrana, and TJ Oshie all contributed, especially on the power play, throughout the past few games. All four players recorded points on at least two of the four meetings, including six-point showings from both Backstrom and Carlson. Vrana produced a healthy three points over the span, while Oshie also added the same number of points to his stat line.
The first power-play unit has been playing great. With Carlson and Backstrom manning the power play, they have a combined seven points on 11 PP attempts. Nonetheless, the Capitals have had success in the Ovechkin-less stretch of the power play with a combined success rate of 45.4 percent.
The Capitals are currently significantly higher than the league average on the man advantage at 41.1%, while the league average is 21.2%.
One problem that kept re-occurring was the lack of discipline throughout the past few games. You could argue that officiating has been a bit stricter than seasons past this year, but that doesn’t really matter. All teams are experiencing the same, tougher style of officiating in their respected divisions. The capitals gave up 15 penalties in twelve periods of play, including going to the box on six occasions against the Sabres on Jan. 24.
As mentioned above, discipline and penalties go hand in hand. The penalty kill hasn’t been all that bad; however, over two of the four games, they haven’t been great on the penalty kill. On Jan. 24 against the Sabres, Buffalo scored all three of their goals on the PK. Shorthanded special teams were only 50 percent effective that game. On Jan. 28 against the Islanders, the Capitals were effective 66% when shorthanded. The league average is currently sitting at 78.7% on the penalty kill.
Over the four games played, the Capitals have been relatively hovering around the league average on the PK at 73.4%. Though not all bad, the PK must improve. On too many occasions, special teams left many opportunities allowing teams to break-in near the middle of the zone, and defensive turnovers still occurred when the Capitals were on the PK. Mind you, not having Orlov only hurts them on special teams.
Every team will most likely suffer and lose players this season due to COVID protocol. Many players across the league have already been sidelined due to either contracting the virus or being exposed to it. Before starting the season, the Dallas Stars had to postpone their first four games due to 17 players contracting COVID-19; they’ve only played four games since the start of the season. Now, teams have to worry about not only star players getting injured, but also worry about players possibly contracting the virus.
The Capitals got a taste of the repercussion first-hand if players do not abide by new post-game regulations. They will have to stay healthy and COVID-free if they want to be successful this season. Though they played against small sample size, I enjoyed how the Capitals have played without the usual Russian flow of talent, but it’d be nice to have them back in the lineup sooner rather than later.
Co-Host of The Starting Rotation on CJLO 1690AM
Journalism at Concordia University