Capitals COVID List Grows, Defense Depleted

Tomorrow night, if the game is to take place, will mark 10 days since the Washington Capitals last played a game. They are scheduled to face off against the Nashville Predators at Capital One Arena, but due to the slew of skaters who have recently entered COVID protocols, another postponement is certainly a possibility.

As of now, they are filling the roster with players from their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Hershey Bears. Having 10 days off could go in two directions: the team’s momentum from their hot start could be cooled a tad or the players, especially the injured veterans, could have used the pause to rest. There are a couple of things to keep an eye on during the Capitals’ return to the ice—if it actually does happen.

COVID Still a Factor for NHL

The pause was seemingly not long enough, but eventually, the NHL would have to return to play. There is still skepticism this week, as the league postponed Monday’s matchups, which consisted of 14 games on the slate. Washington was supposed to play the Ottawa Senators.

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Luckily for the NHL, or more so bittersweet, there is a window to reschedule these games instead of canceling them completely. Last week, the league announced that NHL players would not be participating in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing due to the recent virus surge and heightened risk to all who initially planned on attending and competing. The Olympic break was planned to happen from Feb. 6 through 22, so the NHL now has plenty of spare time to reschedule all games that were missed due to COVID. The Capitals have had a rise in cases greatly affecting their roster, just like most teams, and have had three games postponed thus far.

Capitals’ Defense Will Look a Little Different

Currently, there are over 100 NHL players unavailable due to COVID protocols, and nine of them are Capitals. The blue line has especially been hit hard. Justin Schultz, Nick Jensen, Martin Fehervary, Dennis Cholowski, and goalie Vitek Vanecek all entered protocol the last seven days.

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The unexpected change to the roster has re-opened a spot for Michal Kempny. The veteran defenseman, who was a key factor during the team’s 2018 Stanley Cup run, but has since been haunted by injuries, was recalled from Hershey with goalie Phoenix Copley. Also, the NHL implemented an emergency taxi squad move which will allow each team up to six players they can pick to recall if needed to fill their lineups. The rule will be in effect until the All-Star break.

Washington added defensemen Alex Alexeyev and Lucas Johansen to the taxi squad. Both were first-round draft picks for Washington, and chances are they would have eventually gained some sort of NHL experience this season anyway. It’s just earlier, and perhaps more, than expected. Along with Kempny, it will be important to see how these three perform. Kempny didn’t have a great preseason and Alexeyev and Johansen are very raw. The blue line has been steady for Washington this season, so there may be some flaws John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and Ilya Samsonov need to cover during the transition. On the other hand, plenty of rookies have already stepped up for the Capitals.

Forwards Won’t Look so Different

One such rookie is Brett Leason who was also added to the taxi squad. The forward made his NHL debut back on Oct. 29 and has six points (3 goals, 3 assists) in the 22 games he’s donned a Washington sweater this season. There won’t be a learning curve there.

Unlike the defense, the question for the forwards isn’t if they can sustain this stretch with a depleted group, it’s whether or not they can pick up where they left off. Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov have been removed from the COVID list, but Daniel Sprong is now in protocols and T.J. Oshie didn’t practice on Monday. Still, though Sprong has played better recently after a sub-par start, young skaters like Leason, Connor McMichael, and Aliaksei Protas have all contributed.

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Two other things to watch for is the play of both Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson. Ovechkin is having a Hart-caliber season, so he, specifically, will be the one to see if his momentum was hindered or he benefited from a little extra rest. Expect Wilson, who had been placed on Injured Reserve retroactively on Dec. 10 with an upper-body injury, to be back to his regular physical, ever-progressing self after a little more time to heal.

Here’s Hoping

Don’t be surprised if the offense is fine and the defense looks shaky tomorrow night. There may be a lot of goals to be had. Nashville currently is tied for the fifth-most points in the league (39) and is a top-seven team on the power play, scoring 25.6% of the time. The Capitals are tied for the second-best points total in the NHL (43) and rank fifth with 3.42 goals per game. The Predators got back six players from the COVID list, but added three on Monday, including star defensemen Roman Josi.

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Also, don’t be surprised if the game is postponed again. When one person tests positive for COVID, you can assume many others are to follow, especially in a team setting. We’ve seen it with all three major sports leagues (NBA, NFL, NHL) currently playing as of late. We hope hockey is to return as scheduled, but we also understand if more time is needed.