Following an Alex Ovechkin injury and a lopsided loss to the New York Islanders, the mood surrounding the Washington Capitals has started to sour again. There’s still plenty of unresolved tension in D.C., the sort of pre-playoff jitters that head coach Peter Laviolette is unable to shift on his own.
“I want to say I hope so, but I don’t know,” the 57-year-old said when asked if he expects Ovechkin to play in Game 1. “It depends on how things progress with him. Alex is day-to-day. We’re going to evaluate it and do the best thing for him.”
While the Capitals have yet to disclose the nature and severity of their captain’s injury, he heavily favored his left arm while taking part in Washington’s team photo earlier this week. His tumble into the boards versus the Toronto Maple Leafs is a major concern for the organization. Also of note: Ilya Samsonov’s patchy performance against the Islanders. The 25-year-old allowed four goals on 26 shots and was responsible for Casey Cizikas’ short-handed tally in the final frame.
The Russian’s play is unlikely to do him any favors in the battle for control of Washington’s crease, with Vitek Vanecek re-emerging as Laviolette’s first choice in net. Will the Capitals resolve their latest goalie controversy before the playoffs? Maybe.
Washington finds itself in a complex situation. Laviolette’s squad is less than a week away from entering the postseason without their captain and a clear starter between the pipes. Meanwhile, they remain just one point back from the Pittsburgh Penguins for third in the Metropolitan Division.
As a result, plenty of players on the Capitals’ roster have something to prove in the final week of the regular season and the opening round of the playoffs. For now, here are three.
Where Does Connor McMichael Fit In Peter Laviolette’s Plans?
Connor McMichael is in unfamiliar territory. The 21-year-old has 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) in 67 appearances during his rookie campaign but has seen his influence wane since bursting onto the scene last autumn.
With Ovechkin unavailable for the visit from the Islanders, McMichael returned to the lineup for the first time in seven games, skating on the top line alongside Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson. Although much was made of the Canadian’s return, his ice time was limited to 10:58 on a disappointing night for the Capitals.
“It’s a huge opportunity for me to prove myself going into the playoffs and kind of prove to the coaches that when guys do get hurt that I am ready to fill that void,” he said before puck drop (from ‘Ovechkin injury clouds Capitals’ outlook week from playoffs’, AP, 26/04/22).
The question, then, is how McMichael fits into the lineup heading into the postseason. In the build-up to Tuesday’s contest, Laviolette told reporters he opted to start the former first-round pick in Ovechkin’s place because he didn’t want to reshuffle his lines.
“The lines have been really good for 10 games now, and they’ve been fairly consistent now that we’ve had a healthy line-up,” he explained. “We’ve been able to generate, produce, win hockey games and find success. It’s a great opportunity for Connor, and it disrupts everything else the least.”
Laviolette’s remarks are telling. Firstly, he made it clear that McMichael’s path to selection didn’t come via the face-off dot. Secondly, he played down the possibility of a pre-playoff line blend. In other words, McMichael will only stay on the team for as long as injuries are a factor. He, therefore, has plenty to prove in the meanwhile, with his shot at playing an important role in Washington’s playoff push diminishing day by day. Data from his last five appearances tells the story:
|Opponent||Date||Points||Shots on Goal||Face-Off% (Total)||Time on Ice|
|@ Penguins||09/04/22||0||2||83.3 (6)||7:38|
If McMichael wants to play a role for the Capitals in the postseason, he must capitalize on his last-minute reinstatement. Unquestionably, he’s one to watch as the final week of the campaign plays out.
How Will Martin Fehervary Respond to Playoff Pressure?
Martin Fehervary has struck up quite the relationship with John Carlson throughout 2021-22. The 22-year-old defenceman has emerged as an everyday NHLer, soaking up top-pairing minutes with minimal fuss.
“Everyone knew his potential and what he can do,” Carlson said of his Slovak partner back in December. “We all see his physical side and his defensive-minded side, but the more and more he gets comfortable, the more and more he’s capable of making high-end plays all over the ice. The more and more he gets comfortable with us, with the team, with his confidence within that, he’s going to be a heck of a player.”
Fehervary has 16 points (eight goals, eight assists) through 77 games this season, averaging 19:42 of ice time. He’s proven to be a calm defender alongside Carlson, allowing the American to flex his offensive muscles with increasing regularity. However, the playoffs present a new challenge for the former second-round selection. Fehervary enters the postseason with just two Stanley Cup appearances to his name, both as a 20-year-old.
It’s easier said than done, but his task for the weeks ahead is to maintain his level of performance under the heavy spotlight of the playoffs. Considering his recent performances, there are plenty of reasons to believe in his ability to do so.
Time for Nicklas Backstrom to Deliver
Since the start of the month, Nicklas Backstrom’s offensive production has been uninspiring: he has five points (all of them assists) in 11 games. It isn’t ideal. The Swede isn’t driving play either and enters the final week of the regular season with 31 points (six goals, 25 assists) through 46 appearances. Injuries aside, he simply hasn’t set the world on fire and approaches the postseason on shaky ground.
Backstrom’s ice time has fallen steadily over recent weeks. He earned a season-high 22:28 in Washington’s 3-2 loss versus the Dallas Stars on March 20 but played only 17:57 against the Islanders last time out. Heading into the playoffs, the 34-year-old has plenty to prove. If the Capitals expect a deep run, they’ll need their second-line centreman to have more of an impact going forward.
Backstrom’s shooting numbers tell part of the story. He’s failed to register a shot on goal in 10 games, notching two-plus attempts only 16 times. His shooting percentage has also dipped significantly. In 2020-21, 16.5 percent of his shots found twine. The former fourth-overall pick’s success rate has fallen to just nine percent in 2021-22.
The question Backstrom must address is simple: Can he produce offense when the intensity is ramped up? The answer will shape the Capitals’ run.
Will the Capitals Overtake Pittsburgh?
It’s worth remembering that the entire squad has plenty to prove this week. They’re still locked in battle with the Penguins for a third-place finish in the Metropolitan and must bounce back from their poor showing against the Islanders on Tuesday.
Before the regular season comes to a close, the Capitals will face off against the Islanders and New York Rangers. With playoff seeding on the line, Laviolette’s team must sign off on a positive note. Let’s see how it goes.
Luke is an award-winning sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals beat for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.