Capitals Need Forwards to Step up With or Without Ovechkin

After a four-game losing streak to end the regular season, the Washington Capitals earned the daunting task of facing off against the Florida Panthers in the first round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. At the moment, uncertainty is merited for two reasons: No team wants to enter the postseason on a losing streak, and in Washington’s case, avoiding this specific matchup was achievable if they had won two of their last four.

Related: Capitals History: Druce Leads Washington Into May for First Time in 1990

The Capitals deserve the benefit of the doubt, however, as they had an outstanding April despite a difficult schedule. Also, Alex Ovechkin was out after sustaining an upper-body injury against the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 24. No one really stepped up after that, but someone, or a few someones, must do so starting Tuesday.

Capitals Need Offensive Support to Beat Panthers

The Caps’ offense struggled the last week of the season, averaging a measly 1.75 goals per game. The most worrisome part of the four-game losing streak is the back-to-back defeats courtesy of the New York Islanders. They were outscored 9-2 in those two contests by a team that ranks 22nd in the NHL in goals per game (2.79). But at least the Islanders have a decent defense — they rank seventh in goals against per game at 2.82.

Ovechkin’s absence definitely had something to do with it, but there were also very potent goal scorers who should have been able to muster up more than two per game. The defense shouldn’t have given that many up to a poor offense, especially when the league’s best is now waiting. Here’s a look at which players need to step up, even if Ovechkin is ready to play.

Tom Wilson

Tom Wilson has seemingly disappeared the last two weeks. He hasn’t registered a point in eight games, his longest drought of the season. He was also scoreless for seven straight at the turn of the year. After that, he had at least one point in four straight.

He’s going to have at least four games to rebound. Wilson has increased his production each season he’s been in the NHL, and progression is one of his greatest traits that has helped mold him into a very good all-around player.

Tom Wilson Washington Capitals
Tom Wilson, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

His point-per-game production has slipped since 2018-19 though. He’s dropped from .71 points per playoff game to .40. On the other hand, the amount of games played in the last three postseasons (20) still doesn’t equate to the number of games they took to win the 2018 Stanley Cup (21). So he deserves some leniency in that regard.

Anthony Mantha

Though he’s not a free agent until after the 2023-24 season, Anthony Mantha has a lot to prove right now. He had a disappointing performance in his first postseason last year, recording just two assists in five games.

He has been solid since returning from shoulder surgery, but needs to be well-above-average if Washington has any chance to beat Florida. His talent is undeniable, but if the franchise believes that he and Wilson will serve as a backbone of the offensive core for a good amount of years as Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie slowly reach the end of their careers, then this is the moment for him to truly step up.

He’s not replacing Ovechkin’s production in any way, he’s just providing support because there’s no doubt the captain will try to play in this series. Mantha does have the ability to go on a run and carry the team offensively if needed, but consistency is the key.

Marcus Johansson & Johan Larsson

Washington has five skaters set to become unrestricted free agents this summer: Marcus Johansson, Johan Larsson, Justin Schultz, Michal Kempny, and Matt Irwin. Both Johansson and Larsson were acquired via trade before the deadline.

The Capitals gave the Seattle Kraken Daniel Sprong, who stepped up tremendously last season with Ovechkin unavailable, and a couple of picks in exchange for Johansson. So far, the 31-year-old forward has been average. He has six points in 18 games played for Washington this season, along with a minus-4 rating. He does, however, have a goal, assist, and even rating while Ovechkin has been out.

Marcus Johansson Seattle Kraken
Marcus Johansson as a member of the Seattle Kraken. He was traded to Washington in March. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Johansson spent his first seven seasons in the NHL with the Capitals, reaching the postseason in each. He recorded 30 points in 69 playoff games with Washington from 2010-2017. His production needs to increase because, even if Ovechkin returns for the series, the team will need support beyond its first line.

This includes the fourth line, where Larsson has been mostly slated since joining Washington on March 21. He has six points in 14 games played for the Capitals. During their recent losing streak, he has no points and a minus-2 rating.

Having, unfortunately, played his first nine seasons with the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes, Tuesday will mark Larsson’s first career playoff appearance. Every squad’s fourth line is incredibly valuable, and skating along Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway helps. Though there is no guarantee Larsson will be back in D.C. after this short stint – and the same can be said for Johansson – he could up his stock with a nice showing.

He wasn’t brought in to be a goal scorer, but contributions need to come from everywhere during the playoffs. One promising stat to consider is he’s producing offensively at the best rate of his career. In his 43 games split between Arizona and Washington, he’s averaging .49 points per game, which includes a combined seven goals – the second-highest of his career.

A Tough Draw

Florida may be on a path for a rematch against the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Final that’s 26 years in the making. They will be very motivated come the start of this first-round series, so the Capitals should expect a lot of shots – even more than the Panthers are used to firing. That doesn’t mean they’re unbeatable, considering they have lost three of their last four to end the regular season, including a 10-2 drubbing by the Montreal Canadians – though many key players were resting.

When it comes to the Panthers, a team needs to keep pace if they hope to have a chance, and 1.75 goals per game isn’t going to get it done and will lead to a clean sweep.

Related: Capitals’ 3 Keys to Upsetting the Panthers in Round 1

All things considered, during the three head-to-head matchups between Washington and Florida this season, the Capitals were 1-1-1 and averaged four goals per game, and the Panthers averaged 4.33. Everyone on the offensive side needs to step up, with or without Ovechkin. 

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