4 Capitals Storylines to Watch Down the Stretch in 2021-22

There isn’t much left to learn about the Washington Capitals at this stage of the regular season, we already know who this team is heading down the stretch.

Despite starting the campaign on the front foot, the D.C. franchise skated into trouble at the turn of the year and has been rooted to wildcard position ever since. They’re undoubtedly a playoff team, albeit an unfancied one.

On Monday, we found out why. The Carolina Hurricanes strolled into town and steamrolled the Capitals with a five-goal win. It was the teams’ fourth meeting of 2021-22. Washington had won the previous three. With a season sweep on the line, the Caps were comprehensively outplayed.

Head coach Peter Laviolette, though disappointed with his team’s performance against Carolina, remains relatively upbeat. He believes the Capitals will step up in the playoffs and is prepared to cut his players some slack until then.

Head coach Peter Laviolette, Washington Capitals
Head coach Peter Laviolette, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

“I think [the Hurricanes] came out and tried to reverse [how the season has gone against Washington] in the first period last game,” Laviolette said. “You’ve got to fight for every inch of ice out there, compete like crazy against that team. I think it’s brought out the best in us and some of our best games. When you don’t play to that level, you probably don’t like the game or the period or whatever it is.”

Facing off against Carolina inspired the Capitals to kick into gear earlier in the season. In their final fixture of March, it had the opposite effect. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at three storylines that will shape the team’s fortunes down the stretch.

Are the Washington Capitals Playoff Ready?

Although the Capitals ended March ranked fourth in the NHL for monthly win percentage, dark clouds circle ahead. Washington’s schedule in April is brutal, as noted by THW’s Carl Knauf.

OpponentDateOpponent’s Point %Head-to-Head
Minnesota*4/3/2022.6591-0-0
Tampa Bay*4/6/2022.6820-1-1
@ Pittsburgh*4/9/2022.6672-1-0
Boston*4/10/2022.6690-2-0
Philadelphia4/12/2022.3901-2-0
@ Toronto*4/14/2022.6840-1-0
@ Montreal4/16/2022.3552-0-0
@ Colorado*4/18/2022.7541-0-0
@ Vegas*4/20/2022.5710-1-0
@ Arizona4/22/2022.3461-0-0
Toronto*4/24/2022.6840-1-0
New York Islanders4/26/2022.5302-0-0
@ New York Islanders4/28/2022.5302-0-0
@ New York Rangers*4/29/2022.6741-1-0
* denotes teams in playoff contention

While nine of Washington’s next 14 games are against teams in playoff contention, Laviolette should take confidence from the fact that his team has been better on the road than at home this year. They’re 16-14-5 at Capital One Arena and 21-7-5 on their travels.

Related: Capitals Have Tough Schedule Leading up to Postseason

Ultimately, the Capitals’ difficult slate of fixtures will be a test of how prepared they are for the playoffs. Although alarm bells will ring in the district if they end April with a sub-.500 record, a positive month could change how Laviolette’s team is perceived heading into the postseason.

A string of positive results against the likes of Toronto, Tampa Bay, and Colorado would also transform the team’s morale. The Caps were the talk of the league at the start of the year; it’s time they got back to being regarded as a dangerous playoff opponent.

Laviolette is already thinking about who his team will square off against in the postseason, with Carolina top of mind heading into the final weeks of the season.

“There’s definitely something brewing there. That could certainly be a first-round matchup,” Laviolette said of the Hurricanes. “The fact that we’ve played Carolina a lot here late in the year, we’ll probably rely heavily on those games that we’ve played against them and see what we did.”

If the Capitals want to make an impact in round one, ending the regular season on a high is essential. It’s time for Laviolette and Co. to seize control of the momentum in the East.

How Impactful Will Anthony Mantha be in the Playoffs?

Since returning from the injury list on March 3, Anthony Mantha has produced offence at a surprising rate. He ranks third on the team in goals (five) over the past 13 games, trailing only Alexander Ovechkin (10) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (seven).

The 27-year-old’s form is particularly impressive considering his topsy-turvy start to the season. After notching two goals and four assists through the first 10 games of the year, he was injured on a routine play in Florida against the Panthers.

Mantha’s shoulder required immediate surgery, a course of treatment that kept his arm in a sling for a month and kept him in the press box for four. He has, however, been on fire since returning to the lineup. Speaking to the media last week, Laviolette praised the former Red Wing for the immediacy of his post-injury impact.

“Anytime you’re striding toward the puck, you’re striding toward the battle,” Laviolette said of Mantha’s playstyle. “And he’s certainly got size and the ability to be heavy in those battles, and it has shown. To me, it almost draws you into the fight, draws you into the game. So, really good job moving his feet to get into the battle, to be physical, to come out with pucks, to turn over pucks.

“It doesn’t actually have to be a banging hit — although it has been — it could just be taking those strides to get into the battle to win the puck.”

Mantha’s return to the ice injected fresh energy into Washington’s top six last month. The key question is whether he’ll continue to provide a spark in the weeks ahead.

Will Alex Ovechkin Achieve the Ninth 50-Goal Season of his Career?

There’s an elephant in the room when it comes to appraising how general manager Brian MacLellan approached the trade deadline. Alex Ovechkin is 36 and Washington’s window to win another Stanley Cup is closing.

MacLellan’s decision to focus on the bottom half of his roster wasn’t a ringing endorsement of the team. In other words, adding Marcus Johansson and Johan Larsson at the deadline hasn’t shifted the needle very far for the Capitals. They’re still Stanley Cup longshots.

Alex Ovechkin scoring his 700th goal
Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

As a result, Washington’s path to a deep run in the playoffs is routed through Ovechkin. He’ll need to wind back the clock again if the Caps are to upset the applecart in round one.

In the meantime, Ovechkin’s goal chase remains a subject of intrigue. He’s already lit the lamp 42 times this season and is on pace to hit 51 before the end of the campaign. The Russian needs to find twine eight more times to achieve the ninth 50-goal season of his career. It’ll be quite the achievement if he gets there.

Will Veteran Experience Help Washington in April?

A trade deadline acquisition from the Arizona Coyotes, Larsson is expected to make his Capitals debut against the Minnesota Wild on Sunday. He has six goals and nine assists in 29 appearances this term and is a likely fit on Washington’s fourth line.

Larsson, 29, has been kept out of action by a hernia issue since February but was a key addition for the Capitals at the deadline.

“[Larsson’s] somebody that really fits that role we’re missing with [Carl Hagelin],” Laviolette said. “Again, a veteran player, he’s a good checker, he’s quick, he’s tenacious. I’m excited to see him play, especially on that line and in that role.”

Although Larsson brings plenty of regular-season experience with him to D.C., he has zero playoff appearances to his name at the NHL-level. Thus, the focus will be on the Swede to deliver down the stretch. The Capitals have plenty of veteran experience on their roster – the question is whether it’ll come in handy during the final two months of the season.

If the Capitals are to end the season strongly, Laviolette needs his experienced players to step up in big moments. With a string of playoff-style games on the horizon, Washington’s head coach will soon know what to expect from his team in the postseason. For the likes Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and John Carlson, now is the time to make an impact.

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