Capitals’ Recent Struggles Should be Wake-up Call

The Washington Capitals had a brutal two-game road trip over the weekend, including a peculiar shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild in the latter match after being handled by the St. Louis Blues the night before. Last night they were dismantled by the Boston Bruins. Though they were able to salvage a point during this stretch, they haven’t won a game in 2022 yet, and the team, who was once at the top of the NHL standings, has now dropped to fifth in a week’s time.

It sounds worse than it is, but a trend is still starting to form. Washington is only two points out of sitting atop the league, but the four teams ahead of them are all from the Eastern Conference, so the road to the Stanley Cup Final is gearing up to be rugged. The Capitals need to fix their issues now before familiarity sets in, including what was once their calling card and what was once a promising future.

Capitals Must Play Better

Nothing suggests that Carl Hagelin’s bizarre own goal against Minnesota on Saturday was a sign — other than that statement, of course. But now we’re thinking about it. It’s not like the Capitals are the Chicago Cubs or Boston Red Sox or various international and club soccer squads that have been haunted by the supernatural as the only explanation for franchise failure. Washington does it old school; they do it to themselves.

One freak occurrence shouldn’t send the fan base into a downward spiral of inevitable anxiety this far out of the playoffs, but the own goal was a subtle reminder that things do go wrong for this team. Maybe it’s a bad sign, or maybe it’s a good sign it happened in January.

It should, at any cost, be the last wake-up call for head coach Peter Laviolette and his players. A solution to the same issues (not own goals, to clarify) has yet to be executed. Time is running out and the team has ridden on Alex Ovechkin’s shoulders too long. They’ve gotten by, but now they have to play like they’re a legitimate contender, and that can happen through fixing what’s broken, better goaltending, and using the rookies more.

Still An Issue

Two facets of the game that have hindered the Capitals this season are scoring on the power play and overtime. The former is just odd to process considering the team is always one of the most dangerous units in the league year after year. Currently, Washington ranks 29th in power-play percentage (14.6 percent). Arizona, who is at the bottom of the NHL in points, ranks 28th.

What was once a reliance needs to, at least, become complementary. Of course, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie have been out a ton this season already, and Ovechkin is perhaps a tad fatigued from the increased role and ice time he’s had to take on. This must be solved immediately if they have any chance of getting a high playoff seed and making a run at the Cup.

Sebastian Aho #20 of the Carolina Hurricanes
T.J. Oshie, right, chases down Sebastian Aho during a 2019 playoff game between the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

The same can be said for their performance in overtime, or late in games in general. Stamina has been an issue since 2019 when they lost to the young Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of the playoffs. It’s no secret the team is aging, but it’s being shown on a game-by-game basis, not just over the course of the year.

Washington is 2-9 in overtime games this season. In a seven-game series that hosts sudden-death overtime instead of participation-point overtime, this matters tremendously. Think of it more like Mortal Kombat in place of a kid’s end-of-the-year karate tournament. Overtime losses in the postseason mean you’re finished.

Frankly, some of the games shouldn’t even be reaching overtime, but the team tends to give up late flurries of goals — if they didn’t let in an early flurry of goals. Fixing those pockets of defensive lapses during the game and being fresh for extra time must happen. The rookies can help.

Youth to Combat Youth

Washington’s rookies have been a pleasant surprise this season. Thirteen players have made their NHL debuts in 2021-22 for the Capitals and most were out of necessity due to a depleted roster. Now, they just need to play as expected contributors, and that begins with more ice time.

The rookies have averaged 11:13 of ice time per game, and the only reason it came out that high is because Martin Fehervary averages 19:01 a game. Skaters like Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas, and Brett Leason are proving their worth and they can develop more with increased experience to be ready to contribute in the playoffs.

Connor McMichael Washington Capitals
Connor McMichael, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Also, back to the old elephant in the room, the future of the organization needs to be essentially ready to take the reins of invaluable role players after next summer. Hagelin, Lars Eller, Garnet Hathaway, and Conor Sheary are all unrestricted free agents after 2022-23. The average age of those four skaters by then will be 32.5. Considering these rookies avoided possible regression after being thrown into the lineup, the more time the better at this point — for the team as a whole.

Goaltending

The duo of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek has been average this season. Samsonov has the better record of the two at 13-3-3, but Vanecek has the better save percentage (.907) and goals-against average (2.62). To sum up, both have something to work on.

Related: 5 Capitals Storylines to Watch in the Second Half of 2021-22

Laviolette should continue the strategy of using both until later in the season. Think of it like a gradual ascension into momentum, and then use the hot glove and stick in the playoffs. The trouble in implanting this process is that one may cool off by the time the postseason comes along, and when the other inevitably goes into a slump — as any practical pessimist would assume — a viable fresh backup may no longer be a luxury. Vanecek has gone on four- and three-game losing streaks already this year, and Samsonov has lost his last two, dropping four of six overall since his hot start.

Washington Capitals Ilya Samsonov
Washington Capitals goaltender Ilya Samsonov (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Either way, one or both of these two goaltenders must step up in the coming months, and sooner rather than later if the team wants any chance at lifting the Cup once again. They, although teammates with the same goal, are still in a competition, not only for the starting position but to be the future of the franchise in the crease. It was recently considered promising to have two capable young goaltenders to rely on, but the narrative has shifted into talks of acquiring a savvy veteran at the trade deadline. Maybe someone like old foe Marc-Andre Fleury.

Both netminders are restricted free agents this upcoming summer, Vanecek with a lesser price tag, and Zach Fucale has proved in his four-game sample this season that he can be a solid backup option moving forward — except for last night’s disaster.

Capitals Looking Ahead

Washington must play better so they not only can still be considered a Stanley Cup contender but to prove they can beat the other contenders. Yes, they have a great point percentage (.662) so far this season, and when broken down to how they perform against the level of the opponent, things don’t look too bad.

Capitals vs. Opponents (37 Games as of Jan. 11)Record (20-8-9)Points (49)Point Percentage (.662)
Below .500 Teams (Current as of Jan. 11)8-2-319.731
Above .500 Teams (Current as of Jan. 11)12-6-630.625
Top 10 NHL Teams (Current as of Jan. 11)6-3-214.636
Capitals’ Records vs. Opponents in 2021-22

The Capitals are currently on a four-game losing streak to start 2022 (0-2-2) and it’s only going to get tougher. They’ve banked enough points to survive, but their status can dwindle fast if they aren’t careful. The time is now to fix problems so the usual disappointment doesn’t haunt the fan base and players come postseason time. Keep your panic accessible in your back pocket for now.



Explore everything hockey with THW’s Hockeypedia pages.

The Hockey Writers HockeyPedia 800x120



Latest News & Highlights