Capitals Must Find 2021 Scoring Touch to Break Slump

It’s not looking good for the Washington Capitals at the moment. The team is 1-3-2 since the start of 2022. Other teams have made up ground on them in the standings, and their legitimacy as a Stanley Cup contender is starting to be questioned. The reason behind their slump could be an area they usually excel in: scoring goals.

That’s not the sole factor, of course, because there are a handful of issues that have hindered the Capitals all season like pockets of defensive lapses, goaltending, power-play ineffectiveness, and injuries. Still, they’ve always been able to score, right?  

Capitals Have a Goal-Scoring Problem

Washington defeated the New York Islanders 2-0 on Saturday and it appeared that normalcy had been restored. Hey, if analysts are allowed to overreact to losses, they can do the same with victories. That’s exactly what it was: an overreaction. Their play was veiled by a sub-par opponent.

Related: Takeaways From the Capitals’ Weekend Split – 1/15-1/16

It took the Capitals 36 shots to essentially score one goal. The second goal was an empty-netter courtesy of Alex Ovechkin, so that really doesn’t even count. On the other hand, it counted for him because he was on a goal-less streak of four games, his longest drought of the season. He scored the next day against the Vancouver Canucks as well, and the tally came on the power play, which was a promising sign.

The Capitals still lost the game to the Canucks, however. The unpromising side of the result is that Vancouver, with all due respect, like the Islanders, is a below-average opponent. In fact, of the five games to start the year, only one of Washington’s opponents, the St. Louis Blues, are currently in the top 10 in points in the NHL, and they handled the Capitals 5-1 on Jan. 7.

The Dropoff

The loss was a loss, so whatever, teams lose, but the “1” is what to focus on. Since the start of the year, Washington has been one of the worst goal-producing teams in the league, ranking 26th in goals-for per game and 23rd in total goals during the first few weeks of 2022. On Jan 1., they were tied for the league lead in points (47). Now, they are sixth (51).

2021-22Points (NHL Rank)GF (NHL Rank)GF/GP (NHL Rank)Shots (NHL Rank)PP % (NHL Rank)
Oct. 13-Jan. 147 (1st)114 (3rd)3.45 (5th)32.1 (15th)15.2 (28th)
Jan. 2-164 (22nd)13 (23rd)2.17 (26th)31.2 (15th)20.0 (18th)
Current (as of Jan. 17)51 (6th)127 (6th)3.26 (10th)31.9 (14th)15.8 (28th)
Capitals’ Slump by the Numbers

One reason not to panic is that three of the six teams they played during their January slump are in the top 10 in the NHL in goals against. Yet, when the offense has always been considered dangerous, it shouldn’t matter who the opponent is—especially if it’s a Cup-or-bust kind of year. Who do they think they will be playing in the postseason? Spoiler alert: not the Devils, Canucks, or Islanders.

Where they’re especially lacking is the power play, which needs to be fixed immediately considering it’s usually their calling card. Washington ranks 28th in the NHL in power-play percentage (15.8).  

This can be in part due to Ovechkin’s excessive ice time, averaging the third-highest rate in his career while 36 years old, and power-play staples like Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie either being out or not completely healthy while on the ice.

Consistent Lines

Because of health and player safety issues, head coach Peter Laviolette has had to adjust his roster and lines throughout the year—as has been the case for all NHL teams. For Washington’s aging roster, injuries and stamina are a growing concern each season, but when the usual faces are available, the groupings should remain consistent. Of the six games in 2022 so far, none have featured the same four lines.

Washington Capitals Alex Ovechkin Nicklas Backstrom
Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin celebrates with Nicklas Backstrom (AP Photo/Al Drago)

In the first few months of the season, the Capitals’ top line of Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Tom Wilson was arguably the best in the league. The trio has played together just twice during this six-game stretch.

There’s a reason behind this, however. Laviolette is trying to figure out what will work best moving forward, and it’s only January. Though filtering in the rookies needs to be treated with sensitivity to avoid regression, Brett Leason, Connor McMichael, and Aliaksei Protas have all proven they can compete at the NHL level, and more ice time for the youth, especially those three, will be beneficial for the whole team.  

PlayerTOI in 2-0 win v. Islanders (Points)TOI in 4-2 loss v. Canucks (Points)
Alex Ovechkin19:19 (1 goal)21:45 (1 goal)
Brett Leason14:16 (0)7:12 (0)
Connor McMichael9:45 (0)10:15 (0)
Aliaksei Protas13:55 (1 assist)8:37 (0)
Ice time for Ovechkin, Leason, McMichael, and Protas during weekend split.

Going into Saturday’s game against the Islanders, 11 of the 13 rookies who have debuted this season for Washington averaged 10:31 of ice time in a combined 120 games. That time didn’t include Martin Fehervary’s time on the ice because he was a starter at the beginning of the season, and goalie Zach Fucale was the other rookie not accounted for. The tough part, as Laviolette is discovering, is finding the right spot to give the rookies more opportunities. As noted, it’s only January so there’s some time, but the argument can be twisted, saying, it’s already January, so figure it out fast.

Still No Reason For Panic

To score more goals, they need rest and consistency, but, unfortunately, those can’t coincide. Perhaps shorter shifts may be a short-term solution. Also, Laviolette is trying to work the rookies in, which is great and needed, but he can’t disrupt what was working to begin with. Players like Leason and Protas should only be inserted into the top line out of necessity.

Related: Capitals’ Current & Future Goals Both Require Rookies Playing More

To further, and this is somewhat out of everyone’s control, they need to get healthy. The team, most notably management and coaches, should consider that maybe players are coming back too early, and that even applies to COVID protocols. The older a player gets, the harder it is to come back from any time off. This calls for more trust in the youth to pick up the slack.

Right now, there’s still no need to panic, but with teams creeping up in the standings, things are becoming worrisome. For example, Pittsburgh is 8-2-0 in their last 10 games and is only two points behind Washington in the Metropolitan. The Boston Bruins are also 8-2-0 in their last 10. On Jan. 1, the Capitals were seven points up on the Penguins, 15 up on Boston, and tied for the division and conference lead. Now, they could drop into a wild card spot any given game.

I said don’t panic! Just keep the usual cautious optimism. The great thing about Washington is they can turn things around really quick, they just need a little more help doing so as the stars age.