The Washington Capitals should be thankful January is over. The team went 4-6-2 in the month which was good for 26th in the NHL in point percentage (.417), one spot below the Buffalo Sabres. It was a stretch to be forgotten and February is welcomed with anticipation of turning things around. Their first test will be tonight against one of the hottest teams in the league: the Pittsburgh Penguins.
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Their bitter rivals were 10-3-2 to start the year, which ranked 6th in the NHL in points percentage (.733) during January. The Capitals must rediscover their identity this month or they will be teetering on the edge of the playoffs and forced to make another trade deadline deal with no guarantee of adequate return value.
Capitals Need a Solid February
One of the more worrisome aspects of Washington’s January record was their strength of schedule was as sub-par as their performance. Only two teams, the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues, were in the top 10 in points percentage in the NHL during the month. They went 0-3-0, being outscored 16-7 in those three contests – they played the Bruins twice.
Only one of the 12 games was against a team below them in the January rankings, the New Jersey Devils, which was an overtime loss. The power play continues to be uncharacteristically non-effective and their goaltending, despite two shutouts by Vitek Vanecek in the last two weeks, is still surrounded by uncertainty, which has created some trade rumors involving a familiar foe: Marc-Andre Fleury. The team has recurring issues that have developed and little time to resolve them.
It’s strange to think the Capitals have a problem finding the back of the net. The team averaged just 2.42 goals per game in January, which ranked 29th in the league. However, two players can help alleviate the below-average scoring issues: Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie.
Backstrom has seven points (3 goals, 4 assists) in his last five games, including a three-point night against the Dallas Stars on Jan. 28. The veteran center has missed 33 games this season, and though a major chunk of that time was to start 2021-22 with a hip injury while the team was flourishing offensively, it was a matter of time before his consistency was missed. He has 12 points in 12 games played this season.
Oshie has missed 27 games with multiple trips to the Injured Reserve list. Though his production hasn’t been nearly as potent as fans have become accustomed to in D.C., it’s his presence on the ice that changes the defensive strategy of opponents – which is especially relevant on the power play. The team averages more goals per game and has a higher power-play success rate when Oshie plays, even if he doesn’t record a point. He may be out until after the All-Star break.
In the Crease
Head coach Peter Laviolette gave the nod to Vanecek as the starter moving forward. The 26-year-old played in seven of the team’s 12 games in January, including six of the last eight. He has shown promise of late.
Vanecek has only let in one goal in the last two games, posting a .983 save percentage. He did specifically struggle against Boston in the Capitals’ two losses to the Bruins this month, letting in three the first game after relieving Zach Fucale and another four on Jan. 20, which was good for a lowly .836 save percentage. On the other hand, he has registered two shutouts since Jan. 15.
It’s important to note that Vanecek relieved Fucale in the former match, not Samsonov. Once pegged as the future between the pipes for Washington, Samsonov, 24, has entered a drastic slump. In his four January starts, he’s 0-3-1 with a .861 save percentage and has let in 14 goals.
Because Fucale has proven he can play at the NHL level, the team may be more willing to listen to offers for Samsonov or include him as a piece leading up to the trade deadline. Both he and Vanecek are restricted free agents this summer, but Samsonov’s price tag is currently over $1.2 million more against the cap. Things aren’t in the young Russian’s favor at the moment, and he may have limited opportunities in February to prove his value to the franchise.
Captials’ Month Ahead
February, on paper, will not be a difficult month. Tonight’s game against the Penguins, plus Thursday’s matchup with Edmonton will be tough, but other than the team’s games against the New York Rangers on Feb. 24 and the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 28, they have some opportunities to get everything back to their standard of quality during these next 10 contests.
The scoring will come; there’s still really no need to panic in that regard. With a healthy top-six, plus the emergence of the team’s young forwards, the Capitals will eventually start averaging over three goals per game again.
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The concern remains in the crease. Laviolette and the front office have not just one decision to make moving forward but two. One will lead to the other, however. The coach can see if Samsonov is going to be a viable backup in the postseason. If not, they will certainly be in the market for a veteran netminder to support their playoff run – if there even is one. Samsonov could be a pieced move or they could let him test the market this summer.
Washington currently has the first wild card spot, and after the Bruins, there’s a nice cushion. That doesn’t mean the Capitals should sit on it. They need to find their flow and subsequent surge, and that can start tonight, and who better against than their rivals.