On Jan. 18 of last year, the Washington Capitals exploded for five goals in the third period to overcome a three-goal deficit against the New York Islanders. Alex Ovechkin scored his 26th career hat trick, and Jakub Vrana, Tom Wilson, and Carl Hagelin also chipped in with goals. Ilya Samsonov came on in relief for Braden Holtby, shut out the Isles in the final frame, and earned an NHL rookie record ninth straight road victory to start his career.
A year and 10 days later, the Caps found themselves in a similar predicament. This time, however, only 10 of the 20 Capitals who dressed took part in that game in 2020. Fans have seen their team climb out of three-goal holes over the years, but with this depleted roster against an Islanders squad who’d held them to eight goals in five playoff games, it looked bleak.
But instead of packing it up and walking out with points in three out of four games without their Russian stars, they stuck to the script, rattled off four goals in just over five minutes, and never looked back. The script I’m referring to is the “Next Man Up” mentality that this team has taken on. There are lots of new numbers on the depth chart this season, and they’ve all contributed to the Capitals’ early success this season.
A trademark of Peter Laviolette-coached clubs is activation and production from the defensemen. After losing Radko Gudas to free agency and Michal Kempny to injury, Justin Schultz seemed like the perfect piece to plug into the Washington D-core. A two-time Stanley Cup winner who helped eliminate Washington from the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, Schultz is now not only Brian MacLellan’s best offseason addition, but arguably the most effective Capitals blueliner of this young season.
The Kelowna, B.C.-native dished out two assists on Thursday against the Islanders, and tallied another helper, as well as the game-winning goal with 27 seconds left in the first game of the mini-series. He has two goals and four assists in his first eight games in the red white and blue, and is currently riding a three-game point streak. He’s also slid seamlessly into the top power-play unit, an adjustment made due to the Ovechkin and Kuznetsov absences. Unfortunately, he could not escape the injury bug that has bitten so many Capitals in 2020-21, as he left in the third period of Washington’s Thursday night win after taking a shot to the face. Schultz was unfit to play in their most recent game against the Boston Bruins, and the Capitals will greatly miss his services if he is forced to miss any more time.
“That’s really unfortunate because [Schultz] was one of our top players. He was playing just fantastic at both ends of the ice. So that’s a tough one. Hopefully it’s a short turnaround.”
Going into this season, the Capitals goaltending tandem had 26 games of NHL experience and they all belonged to Samsonov. With their presumed number one out with COVID-19, the team needed Vitek Vanecek to step up in a big way, and that he has. The 25-year-old Czech Republic-native has started every game in Samsonov’s absence and is 5-0-2. Since 1967-68, he is one of nine goalies to go unbeaten in regulation in his first seven games of his career, and the second in franchise history. He is second among all NHL netminders in saves this season with 223, and Mikko Koskinen, who sits in first with 291, has played in three more games. Despite all the rubber being thrown at him, he still sports a respectable .918 save percentage.
What makes it even more impressive is he’s doing this with a revolving door of defense pairings. With different combinations and inserts in the lineup seemingly every night, one would think it would take a while for a young goalie to develop chemistry, get a feel for the net, and find his game. Vanecek has been performing beyond his age, and could very well end up with starting duties in Washington if he keeps it up. D.C. or Seattle.
Offense From Everyone
Replacing Ovechkin’s 708 goal total is no walk in the park, but the Capitals have been getting offensive production from someone new every night. Recently acquired defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and Richard Panik each found the back of the net last game against the Bruins for their firsts of the season. In the comeback game versus the Islanders, Washington got two goals from Conor Sheary and one from Zdeno Chara. In addition to Schultz’s dramatic game-winner against the Isles on Tuesday, Daniel Sprong tied the game late in the second period with a wicked wrister to the top shelf.
Ovechkin’s overtime goal versus Boston in his first game back signaled the beginning of a return to normalcy for Capitals fans. Once Evgeny Kuznetsov and Lars Eller get back into the lineup, Laviolette is going to have some tough roster decisions to make.