It was inevitable—or seemingly so for seasoned skeptics. The NHL has paused their season amid the spread of the Omicron variant. An optimist might consider it an extended holiday break. The Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers were two of six teams scheduled to skate one last time on Tuesday night before the pause. Yet, in classic COVID fashion, the game was postponed.
The early break now raises the question of whether or not the Capitals will lose momentum or if the chance to rest will be welcomed. The answer is a little of both.
Capitals Can Take a Break
Going into the break, Washington is tied for the Metropolitan Division’s lead with the Carolina Hurricanes; the two teams are also tied for second in the NHL with 43 points. Carolina was expected to be this good; Washington was expected to struggle to find ways to keep their Stanley Cup window from slamming shut.
The Capitals are fifth in the league in goals-per-game, averaging 3.42 through 31 games. This is partly due to the Hart-caliber performance from Alex Ovechkin and a rejuvenated Evgeny Kuznetsov. Yet, our evil Madame has stopped everyone in their tracks once again, so whether the team can keep pace will depend on how they handle the break mentally.
Ovechkin, 36, is second in the league in points with 47, trailing the Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl who both have 49. The Capitals’ captain’s hot start can be attributed to adaptation; he has had to carry the load while his team deals with injuries to important players; his average ice time (TOI) per game is 22:03, more than his career average of 20:55 and his highest TOI since 2008-09 when he won his second Hart Trophy.
However, his power-play prowess hasn’t been as noticeable. In his career, 36% of Ovechkin’s 752 goals have come via the power play, but this season, only 22% of his 22 goals were scored with the man advantage. This is also probably why the Capitals rank 28th in the NHL with a 15.6% success rate on the power play.
Though Ovechkin is still on pace to score the most goals in a single season since 2007-08—when he won his first Hart Trophy—other players, specifically the young ones, have also stepped up. This is where momentum becomes a factor. Ovechkin hasn’t regressed from his hot start, but he also hasn’t had a break.
While the young players have seen their confidence build from experience, their groove has now been disrupted. We’ll see how the roster responds after the break, but the good news is that the rookies have already played sporadically, so they shouldn’t be affected by the break and should use the time to refocus if need be. It also bodes well for the veterans, and this opens the window for the overworked or injured stars to get a few extra days of rest.
The Capitals have the second-oldest team in the league. Their average age is 28.68, behind only the elder New York Islanders (29.08). Actually, the Metropolitan Division alone contains the first four oldest teams in the NHL.
Nicklas Backstrom, 34, finally made his season debut on Dec. 15 against the Chicago Blackhawks, registering an assist in the 5-4 overtime loss. Getting one game under his belt, then taking extra time to rehab sore muscles may not be the worst thing for the future Hall-of-Fame center. The older one gets, the harder it is to recover – from hockey or hangovers or COVID (spoiler alert).
Anthony Mantha, 27, is on long-term injured reserve and Tom Wilson, 27, was placed on injured reserve retroactively as of Dec. 10. Wilson can return when he is ready, but additional days off to heal will help the winger return to the dominant form he has established this season.
Now, to address the elephant in the room: the Capitals were the reason the game against the Flyers was postponed. T.J. Oshie, Backstrom and Kuznetsov are in COVID protocols, and before the puck dropped on Tuesday, both Daniel Sprong and Justin Schultz were pulled from the morning skate for additional testing. Earlier in the month, Nic Dowd, Garnet Hathaway, and Trevor van Riemsdyk all sat out due to COVID as well. In November, Lars Eller was on the protocol list. Samantha Pell of the Washington Post noted that all Capitals players and staffers are fully vaccinated, but the team’s booster status is unclear (from ‘The Capitals are taking extra precautions with three players on the NHL’s covid list,’ The Washington Post, Dec. 7, 2021).
The Right Call
The only right answer to the question of this pause helping or hurting the team, or any team for that matter, is that it’s helping. Momentum isn’t the worst thing the break is preventing. The risk associated with the recent surge has left enough uncertainty for the NHL to officially pull their players from representing their respective countries in Beijing at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
In Washington’s case, the team should take advantage of the extra time off to rest and get healthy. Most importantly, they should connect with their loved ones, whether it be virtually or responsibly in person, and celebrate the holidays as best as they can. We all should.
Stay safe and be well, friends. Rock the Red (and green)! Happy Holidays!
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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