Capitals’ Star Talent & Team’s Improvements Fueling Hot Start

The Washington Capitals will reach the 20-game mark of their 2021-22 season Wednesday night at Capital One Arena against the Montreal Canadiens. And despite missing Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Anthony Mantha for a good chunk of the campaign so far, the Caps have recorded a 11-3-5 start to the season and are fighting for the Metropolitan Division lead as American Thanksgiving approaches.

Despite missing at least half of their top-six forwards for the last few weeks, Washington is still tied for third in the NHL with 64 goals, averaging 3.37 goals per game. They’re also tied for fourth in the league with just 44 goals allowed, and tied for second in the league with four shutouts.

Despite the injuries, travel and adversity, how are the Capitals still among the top point-getters in a campaign many didn’t think they would contend for the Metropolitan regular-season title?

A combination of star production and strong play has Washington in a good position in the standings once the team eventually gets healthier and banked valuable points towards a playoff spot, already nine points clear of the ninth-place team in the East.

Ovechkin’s Strong Start

While Alex Ovechkin has long been known for his steady goal production, 2021-22’s start has been one of the best of his long career, with 15 goals and 15 assists in 19 games. He is currently on pace for 65 goals and 65 assists, tying a career-high for goals and a new mark for assists, and obliterating his career single-season high in points. Ovechkin has scored nearly a quarter of the Capitals’ goals this season (23 percent), and had assists on nearly another quarter (also 23 percent), meaning nearly half of the Capitals’ goals have the captain’s hand in them.

Alex Ovechkin Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin has gotten off to the best start to a season in his long career. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Perhaps even more impressive is that while Ovechkin’s goal production in recent years has been mostly thanks to goals coming from his potent one-timer from the circle, this year’s scoring has been from different parts of the offensive zone. Only three goals have come with the man advantage, which would be lowest for a season of at least 70 games since 2011-12.

Related: Alex Ovechkin’s October Gives Him Strong Start in Goal Scoring Race

Instead, Ovechkin has found different ways to light the lamp this fall, and has helped Washington be one of the more productive teams in the league despite the missing talent. His game has adapted, and the Capitals have thrived thanks to it.

Kuznetsov’s Resurgence

One of the reasons for Ovechkin’s high point total is the strong play of Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has recorded six goals and 16 assists playing on the top line, which is nearly his total production for the entire 2020-21 season. Kuznetsov, whose play had noticeably dropped off following the 2018 Stanley Cup run, has played this season with renewed vigor and stepped up when the lineup thinned out.

Evgeny Kuznetsov Washington Capitals
Evgeny Kuznetsov is playing his best hockey since the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs.
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It wasn’t long ago that the Capitals were thought to be looking around to shop the last four years of Kuznetsov’s current deal, at $7.8 million per year, but now he’s proven to be a valuable piece so far this season, placing second on the team in points and fifth in the league in assists.

Should Kuznetsov continue his hustle and resurgence, it would give the Capitals another weapon offensively that really has been missing since the team lifted the Stanley Cup.

Solid Defensive Structure

While the Capitals have lit the lamp often this season, they also have shown off their defensive skill, as the recent stretch has shown off how the team is able to frustrate opponents. Washington allowed just seven goals in seven games of their 6-0-1 stretch that ended with a 5-2 loss in Seattle on Sunday. In that stretch, the defense also helped record three shutouts, including the first NHL win and shutout for callup Zach Fucale’s debut, where they kept the Detroit Red Wings at bay.

Nick Jensen Washington Capitals
Nick Jensen and the Washington defensive corps have been able to control opponents in recent games.
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In their games in Detroit, Los Angeles and San Jose, the defense did a good job limiting their opponents’ chances, and in a 6-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, they really controlled the dangerous Penguins offense that had success against Washington last season.

Minus some of their top forwards, the defense has helped keep the Capitals in games, keeping them mostly even or ahead in contests. And for all but their last loss to the Kraken, the Capitals hadn’t lost any game by more than a single tally, a stretch of 18 games. While the team had been known in recent years for offensive production, particularly from John Carlson, this recent stretch showed ability to limit chances again.

Capitals Goaltending Tandem Rebounds

After a very shaky stretch for Washington’s netminders, the tandem of Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov has shown improvement, particularly the latter.

Ilya Samsonov Washington Capitals
Ilya Samsonov recorded back-to-back shutouts in California this past week. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Samsonov earned the NHL’s Second Star of the week award for his two shutouts in Los Angeles and San Jose. His personal shutout streak of 151:27 is less than 60 minutes shy of Pat Riggin’s franchise mark of 203:52, so he will get a chance to break it in his next start. Samsonov also became the first Capital since Braden Holtby in the 2018 playoffs to record back-to-back shutouts, the first time in the regular season since Holtby turned the trick in January 2017, and the first Capitals goaltender to do so on the road since Clint Malarchuk in February 1988.

Related: Capitals’ Goaltending Picture Cloudy After Samsonov’s Struggles

One of the biggest questions around the Capitals’ Cup contention has been the quality of play from the goaltenders, and if the pair can continue to show improvement as the season progresses, it will make Washington more of a threat to try and claim its second Cup in five seasons.

West Is Best for Washington

The Capitals showed a lot of success before the pandemic against the Western Conference, particularly the Pacific Division, going 10-2-3 against that division in 2019-20. Of course, they didn’t get a chance to play those clubs last season, but they found more success in their first western road trip of the campaign.

Washington went 2-1-1 against the Ducks, Kings, Sharks and Kraken on the road, and another point from October at home against the Calgary Flames. The Capitals are also 2-0 against Central Division foes this season, and are now 4-1-2 against the Western Conference.

After a steady diet of Eastern teams to start this season, Washington was able to show off its skill and speed against the West, and certainly has proven to be a boost to the team in the standings.

What’s Ahead After Thanksgiving

With nearly a quarter of the season gone, the Capitals have been able to overcome the loss of key players and not only stay in the playoff chase, but banked important points to help whenever a slump may arrive.

Clearly, the team has been powered by the first line’s production, and at some point, the numbers will drop off, but Washington hopes to have its second line back to help pick up the slack when it comes.

Some key games loom for Washington after Thanksgiving, with the next three following the holiday against the only two teams they currently trail in points: the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes.

Regardless of the team’s loss to Seattle on Sunday, the team’s start has been beyond what many would have expected with the number of injuries and schedule so far.

“Through it all,” Caps coach Peter Laviolette said following the trip. “I thought that they were on point with trying to make sure that this team keeps moving forward to win hockey games, the guys that are putting on the jersey each night, whoever that might be. They’re trying and they’re working. Even tonight, we faced a little bit of adversity and I thought the guys pushed right to the end.”

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