Capitals’ Health and Perseverance Key to Postseason Run

The Washington Capitals are two points below the New York Islanders for the MassMutual East Divison lead. However, the standings are tight, and fans have a right to be wary of Washington earning that top spot. Already amid an up-and-down campaign, the Capitals must figure out how they can keep pace and make a postseason run.

Past Playoff Struggles

There’s no need to mention the disappointment leading up to 2018. But that doesn’t mean the two seasons between then and now shouldn’t be ridiculed. The Capitals haven’t won a playoff series since raising the Stanley Cup during that storybook season. Losing head coach Barry Trotz who now coaches the division-leading Islanders, was a major factor in the team’s recent early playoff exits. During Todd Reirden’s two-season tenure, the coach has posted a .642 regular-season win percentage and won the division both years. However, he has a pitiable 5-10 playoff record, and the Capitals were ousted by a lower-seed team in the first round in 2019 and 2020.

By the way, Trotz has won four playoff series with the Islanders, including last season’s dominant 4-1 series win against the Capitals.

There is one similarity in both the team’s substandard postseason departures: the Caps looked worn down. This was especially apparent in their 2019 series against a youthful Carolina Hurricanes squad. That Game 7 overtime was painful to watch; the Hurricanes were bound to score given how they were out-skating Washington. The 2020 Playoffs were strange, to say the least, and COVID-19 was a valid excuse. However, everyone was on the same boat that sailed into the bubble. Even after months off, the Capitals looked exhausted.

Todd Reirden Washington Capitals
Todd Reirden lasted just two seasons as the Washington Capitals’ coach. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

An imminent coaching change was made in D.C. before the beginning of the 2020-21 season. The experienced Peter Laviolette took the helm of an old ship that may only have a few solid voyages left. His job isn’t just to bring another Cup to Washington, but also to patch a few holes instead of rebuilding. Laviolette won the Cup as head coach of the Hurricanes in 2006. He also took the Philadelphia Flyers (2010) and Nashville Predators (2017) to the Final.

If he wants to lead his fourth team to the Stanley Cup Final, the Capitals need to buy into his system. They also need to find the fountain of youth during their journey.           

NHL Senior League

Age is just a minor concern for the Capitals. Signing Zdeno Chara, 43, didn’t help their average, but Washington is the oldest team in the league. The team’s average age is 29.7, a full year older than the Toronto Maple Leafs (28.6).

2020-21 NHL TeamAverage Age
Washington Capitals29.7
Toronto Maple Leafs28.6
Detroit Red Wings28.6
Vegas Golden Knights28.3
Nashville Predators28.3
Age does and doesn’t matter. Toronto, Vegas, and Washington are Cup contenders while Detroit and Nashville are struggling during the 2020-21 season.

Again, Chara is the oldest player in the NHL, but the rest of his blueliners are closer to the end of their careers than the start. Of the rest of the roster, the defense has an average age of 29. It would be closer to 30 if Jonas Siegenthaler, 23, didn’t lower the average by almost a full year—he’s only played six games this season.

The offense is slightly younger. Daniel Sprong, 23, is having a nice season with three goals and four points in 13 games played. Luckily, Jakub Vrana, 25, and Tom Wilson, 26, are consistent contributors. Vrana has eights across the board in goals, assists, and his plus/minus rating. Wilson has seven goals and 17 points, which ranks fourth on the team in both categories. Unluckily, Wilson just received a seven-game suspension for his hit on Boston Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo, and Vrana has been horrid in the last two plaoffs.

Vrana, who has been heralded as one of the franchise’s key young players, had zero points and a minus-6 rating in last season’s series against the Islanders. Since his opening goal in Game 5 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, he has no postseason points and a minus-8 rating in 15 games.

Another issue is ice time. Of the 16 skaters who have played 20 games or more this season, nine of the team’s top-10 leaders in ice time are over 30. Carlson, 31, and Ovechkin, 35, both eclipse more than 20 minutes of regulation gameplay.

At least Washington’s goalies are young. Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek are 24 and 25, respectively. However, this may be the position where they need some experience going into the postseason.

Reverse Aging

That was taken care of at the beginning of the season when the Capitals signed veteran Henrik Lundqvist to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. Unfortunately, the esteemed netminder had heart surgery during the offseason and decided not to play this season. With that in mind, he has progressed with his recovery, which should make the entire hockey world relieved.

With Lundquist taking care of himself, the Capitals still have five goaltenders to consider. In addition to Samsonov and Vanecek, Craig Anderson is an experienced presence, and Phoenix Copley and Zach Fucale have played decent for the team’s AHL affiliate, Hershey Bears. The former posts a 2.70 goals-against average in four starts and the latter has let in just 0.67 goals in three games.

It’s better for a team to find out what they have earlier than later, however, and there isn’t much room for error in a taut division during a shortened season. Laviolette should use the rest of March to tinker with his roster very carefully.

The trade deadline is approaching, but the Capitals may not need to make a move before April 12. Though their stars are older, that’s not necessarily a bad thing—hence, a minor concern. They just need a little more support from their youth and to adapt to Laviolette’s system sooner rather than later.   

Benefits of a Shorter Season

On the other hand, the shorter season could be a saving grace for the Capitals. In 2019, Washington went 17-8-1 over their last 26 games, nearly identical to how they finished their 2017-18 campaign (17-9-0). In 2020, it was different because of the COVID-19 pause. The regular season ended at 69 games, and the Capitals went 5-5-3 in their last 13. When the playoffs began in August, the team looked shabby and unprepared and went 2-4-2 in the round-robin and first-round. They are trending downward when it comes to finishing the season and performing in the playoffs.

In a 56-game schedule, a full postseason will equal, give-or-take, a standard regular season in a non-pandemic year. If a team wins the Stanley Cup by way of four seven-game series, that will total 84 games. That’s definitely doable. All the Capitals would need is the stamina to go 16-12.

Washington Capitals Jakub Vrana
Washington Capitals Jakub Vrana (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)

The window always seems to be closing on the Capitals but never fully shuts. Perhaps they can follow the clues left by Ponce de Leon or hold on to the thought that Cocoon was based on a true story. As for now, the aging players must rely on their experienced minds, stay healthy, and follow COVID-19 protocols while the younger skaters step up.

If the Capitals are to make a deep playoff run, Vrana needs to have a fantastic postseason, Wilson needs to be available – not serving an NHL sentence – and both Samsonov and Vanecek must be beyond solid in net. If those four play well, the Capitals surely have a chance at another Stanley Cup.

The team is in a strange position philosophically. Whether it’s a subtle rebuild, rediscovery, or reinvention, they need to find endurance and persevere to remain a threat this season.

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