The Washington Capitals managed only a split in a pair of weekend games on Jan. 15 and 16 against the New York Islanders and Vancouver Canucks.
In a perfect world, head coach Peter Laviolette would have seen his team claim all four points in the weekend set against two significantly less talented teams, but even if things didn’t go exactly as planned, there were some solid signs from a Capitals team that has been struggling with consistency for more than a month.
Capitals Goaltending Saga Continues
Vitek Vanecek looked solid on Saturday against the Islanders in a much-needed 2-0 win. With New York battling to get back into the playoff race in the East, the Caps turned in a solid defensive effort, yielding only 23 shots on goal, and Vanecek was efficient, if not spectacular, when he needed to be.
Don’t misunderstand: Samsonov’s play wasn’t horrible on Sunday, but it also wasn’t good enough for a Stanley Cup contender, either. On Vancouver’s opening goal, he overplayed a toe-drag by Elias Pettersson, and committed by dropping to his knees way too early. Pettersson took advantage and erased a 1-0 Caps lead by beating Samsonov high to the glove side.
The go-ahead goal for Vancouver, also off the stick of Pettersson, was even more troubling. Samsonov slid hard to his left to stop a shot, but was unable to control the rebound, and Pettersson was able to bank the puck off the netminder from behind the goal line and into the net. It was a gift for a Canucks team that has only recently started to find its offensive game.
There were other moments, too, when Samsonov was out of position, frantically sprawling, or unable to control his rebounds. All these seem to be the characteristics of a goaltender who is trying too hard and whose movement is too chaotic.
The results from the weekend lead one to believe that until outside goaltending help is brought in to reinforce the Caps’ tandem, it’s likely that Laviolette will lean into Vanecek’s solid performance on Saturday and give him the net again this week.
Tom Wilson Brings More
The Capitals need more from Tom Wilson, and this weekend the right winger snapped out of a funk by scoring a goal in each of the games against the Islanders and Canucks. He also led the team in hits on Sunday with six, tallying nine in total in the two weekend contests.
That kind of engagement, not only physical but also on the scoresheet, is the kind of effort the Capitals need from Wilson, because it gives them a different kind of offensive dimension that they otherwise lack, something that can especially come in handy when trying to revive a slumbering power play.
Ovechkin, Washington Power Play Come Alive
For the first few minutes with the man advantage on Sunday, it looked like the same old thing from the Caps.
After going 0-for-2 against the Islanders 24 hours earlier, Washington’s first power play against Vancouver involved a lot of good perimeter puck control, all geared toward setting up Alex Ovechkin for his patented one-timer from the left circle.
If you haven’t been paying attention to Ovechkin’s career over the past 16-plus seasons, that’s kind of his thing. In fact, he managed to hammer a one-timer goal through Canucks’ goalie Thatcher Demko on Sunday to open the scoring, the 276th power-play goal of his remarkable career.
But given the Capitals’ recent struggles on the power play (it’s running at a 15.8% clip and is 28th overall), adding some variety and net-front presence is critical to forcing defending teams to worry about more than just Ovechkin.
Enter Tom Wilson. Waiting in the slot, he was the final recipient of some excellent offensive-zone puck movement by the Capitals, capped off by a slick touch pass from Evgeny Kuznetsov. Even though Washington couldn’t overcome a two-goal deficit on Sunday, the fact that the power play converted on both of its opportunities is a positive sign.
“There’s a lot of plays being made out there,” Laviolette said after the game. “Just moving it around and finding Tom in the pocket, [it was] good movement and good execution.”
Capitals Rookies Embracing Opportunity
Perhaps the biggest positive to come out of this weekend for the Capitals is the continued strong play of their young forwards.
While Washington has a well-deserved reputation for being a team with an aging core of stars, the club is second in the entire NHL in games played by rookies this season, with 149. Brett Leason, Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas, and Martin Fehervary have accounted for more than 120 of those games on their own.
What made this weekend look promising is the increasing ice time this group of promising 21-and-22-year-olds is accumulating.
On the blue line, Fehervary played over 21 minutes in both games on the weekend, two minutes more than he’s averaged through the year so far. McMichael continued to log his usual 10 minutes per game on the weekend. Leason and Protas both had upticks in minutes on Saturday following T.J. Oshie’s early departure from the game.
If the Capitals are going to withstand the grind of the regular season and lessen the burden on aging stars like Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson, coach Laviolette is going to have to trust his younger players. Failing to do so could result in a Capitals team that’s already showing the cracks and wear of its aging core limping into the playoffs weary and primed for another early exit.
Pat Hirtle is a communications management professional in municipal government in the hockey hotbed of Nova Scotia, Canada.
With an academic background is history, five years’ experience as co-host of the sports-talk radio show Three For All, and more than a decade in the community newspaper industry as a reporter and award-winning columnist, Pat brings a strong writing, research, and analysis background to his work covering the Washington Capitals for THW.