Capitals’ New Year’s Resolutions

With a dawn of a new year upon us, now is a perfect time to reflect back on 2016. It’s been a bittersweet year for the Washington Capitals, having won another Presidents’ Trophy but ultimately failing to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. That is a place this team has still never gone during the Alex Ovechkin era.

But a new season brings renewed promise. Although the Capitals don’t appear to be a true threat for the Presidents’ Trophy this season — as Washington fans were brutally reminded last spring — that piece of hardware isn’t the No. 1 prize. If the Capitals can improve in these three areas, they will put themselves in firm position to compete for the Stanley Cup in 2017.

Secondary Scoring

Alex Ovechkin (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Alex Ovechkin (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It was the team’s Achilles heel last season, and it remains so in 2016-17. The Washington Capitals only have five players with at least five even-strength goals. Washington’s biggest competition in the Metropolitan Division all have more. The New York Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets each have an incredible 10 players with at least five even-strength goals while Pittsburgh has eight.

Alex Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams have accounted for more than 58 percent of Washington’s scoring at even strength. Those five players also make up nearly 63 percent of the team’s total offense. The Capitals must have a more balanced attack if they plan to be a true threat in a playoff series.

Fortunately, things have gotten a little better for the third and fourth lines recently. Winger Andre Burakovsky has two goals and three points in the last three games while fellow forward Lars Eller recorded a goal and an assist versus Philadelphia on Dec. 21. Since coach Barry Trotz placed Burakovsky, Eller and rookie Jakub Vrana on the same line together, the third unit has combined to score three goals in six games.

Washington’s blue line scored more in December too. Both Matt Niskanen and John Carlson posted two-goal games in the final month of 2016.

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The Power Play

If the lack of secondary scoring is the No. 1 reason Washington is only 14th in goals per game this season, then the power play struggles are a close second. The Capitals had one of the best power plays in the NHL last season, finishing fifth in the league with a 21.9 percent success rate. This season, their conversion rate on the man advantage has dropped to 18.3, which is 15th-best in the league.

Alex Ovechkin leads the team with six power play goals, but that’s actually not up to his usual standards. He is on pace for 14 markers on the man advantage, which would be five short of his league-leading 19 from last season. Injuries to T.J. Oshie and a sluggish start to the power play in October are the other reasons for the lower percentage. At one point, Washington’s man advantage was 10-for-64 (15.6 percent).

The good news is, like the secondary scoring, the Capitals power play improved in December. Heading into Thursday’s game versus New Jersey, Washington is 9-for-44 (20.5 percent) on the man advantage this month. That’s ninth-best in the NHL.

Improve Play Versus Metro Opponents

(Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports)
(Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports)

The Capitals have four games in hand on the Penguins and Rangers, but Washington sits in the fourth place in the Metropolitan mostly due to their sub-par play within the division. The Capitals are 4-5-4 versus Metro opponents.

Columbus is a perfect 5-0-0, Pittsburgh is 10-4-0 and the New York Rangers are 8-5-0 inside the same division, which right now, is the toughest in the sport. Against those three teams, Washington is 1-2-2. Maybe even more frustrating, though, is the fact the Capitals are just 2-2-1 versus the lowly New York Islanders.

Washington has another matchup with Columbus and two more games versus Pittsburgh in the first half of January. The Capitals have to start winning these games if they want to finish in the top three within the division.

But again, there’s good news. Washington still has five matchups against bottom dwellers – New Jersey and the New York Islanders – left on the schedule. The Capitals lost to the Devils on Thursday, but they face New Jersey again on Saturday. Furthermore, 12 of Washington’s final 13 games this season will be versus non-division opponents. Against the rest of the NHL (other than the Metro division), the Capitals are 16-4-1.