After a rivalry-infused realignment last season, the NHL restored its divisions in 2021-22. The east is loaded; six of the top seven teams are from the conference, and the Atlantic and Metropolitan have three representatives—six of eight in ESPN’s latest power rankings.
Last season, seven Eastern Conference teams finished in the top 10, and both Stanley Cup finalists were from the east — although the Montreal Canadians finished 18th in the NHL and are not doing well this season. On the other hand, the Metropolitan Division has two surprising teams. The biggest disappointment has to be the New York Islanders, who made it to the semifinals last season and are now last in the division and the team that has exceeded expectations is the Washington Capitals.
Capitals Remain a Threat
It’s surprising in itself for Washington to be a surprising team, but the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils were predicted to be better this season, and the Carolina Hurricanes were not only a division favorite but a Stanley Cup contender. Plus, the Capitals are an aging team that pushed the limits of the salary cap for little return in value.
Washington has been getting it done in many ways: their star players, most notably the first line, have been unstoppable, some rookies have stepped up, and head coach Peter Laviolette has implemented lasting strategies—so far. If they can sustain this level of play, the rest of the league better be nervous come playoff time.
The Top Line in the NHL
Right now, the Capitals have an early-MVP candidate in Alex Ovechkin. Also, Evgeny Kuznetsov has been revitalized and proving why he’s one of the best centers in the league. Ovechkin, 36, is third in the NHL in points (41) and second in goals (20) – Leon Draisaitl leads all skaters in both categories with 45 and 23, respectively.
Kuznetsov has 28 points and is on pace to have the best season of his nine-year career. Tom Wilson has once again proven that his value is more than as a goon. He’s is on pace to score 75 points, which would be 31 more than his career-high of 44 in 2019-20.
Of course, the trio’s production is heightened by the health, or lack thereof, of their teammates. Nicklas Backstrom (hip) hasn’t played this season, Anthony Mantha (upper body) is on injured reserve, and T.J. Oshie, Lars Eller, and Nic Dowd have all had stretches missing time. With that in mind, it’s even more impressive that Washington has remained atop the league.
A surprise within the surprise has been the performance of the Capitals’ rookies. Martin Fehervary was expected to do well after being inserted into the lineup from opening night, but some early excitement from Hendrix Lapierre and contributions from Brett Leason, Aliaksei Protas, and Zach Fucale has given the team a boost. Beyond Fehervary, no other rookie has been more impressive than Connor McMichael.
McMichael, 20, has eight points, but his solid all-around play has helped tremendously as the team waits for Backstrom to return. Plus, he is gaining experience at the NHL level instead of regressing, which was a possibility given that he was forced into the lineup to fill out Washington’s roster.
The performance of the rookies can be somewhat attributed to Laviolette’s strategy. Having Fehervary paired with John Carlson was smart because it not only helped the rookie learn, but the veteran could cover any early flaws. Playing the rookies on the same line, who knew each other well from playing with the Hershey Bears, Washington’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, was also smart.
How Laviolette has approached the goaltending situation also worked. Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek have started in 14 and 13 games, respectively, and both have a sur-.900 save percentage and sub-2.60 goals-against average. Fucale earned a shutout in his only start.
Samsonov’s record, however, sets him apart. The 24-year-old is 11-1-1 on the season and ranks 11th in the NHL in wins despite playing the fewest number of games of the 10 netminders ahead of him. His win percentage of .786 is higher than those ten as well.
Where the Capitals Need Improvement
Not everything is perfect. There are areas where the Capitals need to get better, or they won’t last long in the playoffs—if they make the postseason, of course. It’s practical to believe that Ovechkin will slow his pace at some point, and considering he, Kuznetsov, and Wilson have accounted for 39% of the team’s points, other players will need to step up.
That could change when Backstrom and Mantha return. Health is another major issue for Washington. Too many high-profile players have landed on injured reserve or are stuck in COVID-19 protocols. The risk of players being unavailable later in the season is high, and they need to be physically ready for a deep run.
Their stamina also needs to increase. Of the seven overtime/shootout games Washington has played this season, they’ve lost six. It’s great they’ve managed to earn a point, but in the playoffs, an overtime loss could mean you’re going home. They’ve allowed teams to get back into games in late flurries at times, so consistency is key moving forward.
At this point, Washington is a Stanley Cup contender, but the fan base should remain cautiously optimistic. It’s likely they won’t sustain this pace, but they’ve put themselves in a good position early to have a little buffer late in the season—if needed. There is no reason to take the foot off the gas at the moment because you never know when the Islanders will figure it out, and the Pittsburgh Penguins get into a groove when healthy.
With the help of their top line, rookies, and Laviolette’s savvy, the Capitals have the confidence and are playing like a top team in the NHL. They’ve always been a threat, but it’s surprising how much of a threat they are right now. All they need to do is sustain a similar pace, and they will be in a good position come playoff time. The window that everyone assumed was closing is still wide open.
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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