The Washington Capitals suffered a 4-3 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday. It was their second game without Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, and Ilya Samsonov. Picking up three out of the four possible points in their first two contests without their Russian stars was a small victory. But with the New York Islanders coming to town, the team who bounced Washington from the playoffs this past summer, there are a few areas the Caps will need to tidy up in.
All three of the goals that the Sabres scored in regulation on Sunday were punched in on the power play. They were given five man advantages and a penalty shot to boot, which rang off the right post. Undisciplined play, combined with the inability to kill off the penalties, ultimately contributed to the unraveling of the Capitals on Sunday.
The Islanders’ power play does not have the firepower that Buffalo’s has, nor has it had similar success. They are going into Tuesday with an 18.2% effectiveness on the man advantage, good for 19th in the NHL. Nonetheless, the Capitals need to stay out of the box. The Islanders have a mere nine goals in this young season, but four of them are on the power play. Washington would be wise to not hand out any freebies, and make New York beat them five on five.
When a team’s starting goalie is out, the message is generally to tighten up defensively, get in the way of shots, and limit the number of pucks on net. Especially when the replacement is a first-year player. In Vitek Vanecek’s first four NHL appearances, either that message was not delivered, or the game plan was not executed.
He has faced 136 shots this season, averaging out to 34 shots a game, which is tied for fourth-most in the NHL. He also has 124 saves, which is sixth-most; the five goalies above him have all played in more games. Sunday was Vanecek’s busiest workday thus far, making 45 saves on 48 shots. It took a nifty goal from Jack Eichel for the Sabres to prevail in a shootout in which Washington didn’t score once.
Caps fans shouldn’t worry about this becoming a long-term issue just yet, however. First-year Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette is still tinkering with the line combinations, and the team is still learning a new system and style of play on the go, all without a preseason or normal length training camp. The Islanders average 27.2 shots per game, the ninth fewest in the NHL, so this is an opportunity for the Capitals to work on limiting opposing shots on net and making life a bit easier for Vanecek.
Next Man Up
One of the most glaring issues for the Capitals in their five-game playoff series against the Islanders back in August was their lack of secondary scoring. Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and T.J. Oshie were the only Washington skaters to dent the twine in the Eastern Quarterfinals. And as we all know, Ovechkin and Kuznetsov will not be in the lineup for either of the games against New York this week.
Even with the COVID related absences, Tom Wilson’s injury, and several new faces in the lineup, the Capitals have been pulling their weight in the goal-scoring category so far. They have eight goal-scorers in the past three games. In the six games to start 2020-21, nine different forwards already have a goal, and three more defensemen have one. That is the type of balance that eluded Washington last summer and is the recipe for success against a stingy defensive-minded team like the Islanders.
Last season’s early departure from the bubble surely left a sour taste in the mouths of the Capitals players. They were outplayed, outworked, and outcoached by a team that many thought didn’t stand a chance. We’ll see if they come out with the preparation and intensity that they lacked in August and get back into the win column Tuesday night.