Hot Start Eases the Pain of Capitals Injuries

Nicklas Backstrom is thought to be day-to day after leaving Wednesday's game (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
Nicklas Backstrom is thought to be day-to-day after leaving Wednesday’s game (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

For years the Washington Capitals, much to the chagrin of their fans, have struggled to get out of the gate, giving away points in October and November only to right the ship at some point in December and usually play well enough down the stretch to earn a playoff berth. What generally happens after that will not be discussed here since none of us has enough time to cover that topic.

This year, however, has been different. The Caps, who beat Buffalo, 5-2, Wednesday and are in Carolina Thursday for a 6 p.m. New Year’s Eve tilt, are the hottest team in the NHL and will enter 2016 either having won 10 straight games or with nine victories in their past 10 outings. They enter Thursday’s contest with an 11-1-1 mark in December and a 16-1-1 record dating to a 3-2 loss against Dallas (the NHL’s second-best team to date) Nov. 19.

They are 20-4-2 since the beginning of November, having strung together separate six- and nine-game winning streaks during that span. Their nine-game winning streak is tied with Montreal for the NHL’s longest of the season.

Washington enters the last day of 2015 with an overall record of 28-6-2, which puts the Capitals just about on target to challenge the record-setting pace of the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens, who finished with all-time NHL-best 132 points. At 58 points the Caps lead the NHL by one over the Stars (with a game in hand) and hold a 12-point advantage in both the Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division with games still in hand.

To put it in perspective, the Washington has surpassed all of the best starts through however many games you want to count in franchise history. A victory Thursday would tie the franchise mark for consecutive road wins at six and give the team its best full month ever. The club already has ensured the best December in franchise annals.

A Little Rest Never Hurts

What does this all mean? Well other than the obvious – that the Caps are the team to beat in the East, may be the most complete team in the league and are a legitimate Cup contender – it means that Washington can afford to rest some players during the season’s stretch run and that even a rash of injuries won’t squash its playoff hopes. If you use 95 points as the target to earn a playoff berth, the Capitals would only have to go 19-27 the rest of the way to get there.

Of course the playoffs are no longer the goal for this team after last year’s Game 7 loss to the Rangers in the second round. It’s conference finals or bust – and maybe, after this start, Stanley Cup Finals or bust – this time around. Anything less would be a disappointment.

John Carlson's consecutive-games streak ended this week at 412 (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)
John Carlson’s consecutive-games streak ended this week at 412 (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

Given the lofty expectations at this point, it is important for the organization and its fans to keep the end game in mind as the season progresses. Sure it would be great to set the all-time points record and capture another Presidents’ Trophy, but we all know how that worked out last time. Of course some pundits would argue that it’s better to be competing night in and night out for a playoff spot or jockeying for a better seed right up until the end of the seaso. That keeps you sharp and on top of your game and ready for playoff-style hockey, right?

Perhaps. But realistically the NHL season is an 82-game physical and mental grind that is followed by the most grueling playoffs in all of sports. Eighty-two games followed by four grueling best-of-seven series that could potentially add another 28 highly intense battles to your year is enough to make the even toughest player wilt.

Being able to give highly skilled players such as Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, along with grinding veterans such as Brooks Laich, Jason Chimera and Justin Williams, a day or night off occasionally to rest and recharge is a good thing – regardless of whether it results in a few extra losses.

The flip side of that is the opportunity to give some younger or more unknown players a chance to compete in the NHL and get accustomed to what it takes to be successful at the highest level. You might even find a diamond in the rough who can compete successfully now, or at least provide these players with valuable experience that will afford the team greater depth during the long playoff grind. Rarely does a team win the 16 games required to capture the Stanley Cup without dealing with injuries to key players, and those with the most depth and experience generally prevail.

Ah, injuries. That brings us to the subject of the day. To this point the Caps have been fortunate, for the most part, to escape a potentially crippling rash of injuries. Prior to this week, other than Backstrom missing the first three games of the season after off-season hip surgery and top-pairing defenseman Brooks Orpik being sidelined since Nov. 12, Washington has escaped any serious injuries.

Injury Luck Changes for Capitals

Michael Latta injured himself in a fight vs. Buffalo (Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports)
Michael Latta injured himself in a fight vs. Buffalo (Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports)

That all changed this week, with the team’s other top-pairing defenseman John Carlson, who had played in 412 consecutive games, suffering an undisclosed lower-body injury that will keep him out “at least a few more games,” according to head coach Barry Trotz. That was followed by a hand injury suffered by fourth-line center Michael Latta in a fight at Buffalo Monday and then injuries to both top-line center Backstrom and steady third-line center Jay Beagle Wednesday night against the Sabres.

Backstrom is with the team in Carolina and may play Thursday, but Beagle’s upper-body injury is said to be serious enough to require surgery and land him on the injured list. Latta probably could have played Wednesday, but the team thought better of it – possibly because Monday’s game was so chippy. The Caps finished Wednesday’s contest missing two of its four centers and with a third center (Latta) watching from the press box.

So many injuries in such a short period would cause many teams to panic. That is not the case for the Caps, who not only have solid organizational depth but also now have the luxury of a holdling large cushion in the standings. Keeping the team’s overarching goals in mind, this opportunity to get some of its younger prospects and potential depth players more NHL experience may work out for the best.

“We are pretty relentless as a team,” red-hot goalie Braden Holtby said. “We are pretty confident in what we can do as a group. Obviously {injuries} make it tougher. Those guys play a huge role on our team, but we are going to have to find different ways to win if they are out.”

Washington already has been buoyed by the performance of offseason acquisition Taylor Chorney and young defenseman Nate Schmidt, who have assumed larger roles in Orpik’s absence. Chorney has moved into a regular spot with Dmitry Orlov on the third pairing, with Schmidt moving up to the top pairing alongside Carlson until Carlson’s injury kept him out of the last two games.

Since Orpik, a 20-plus-minute-a-game guy and top penalty killer, has been out of the lineup the Caps have gone 18-2-2, with Chorney putting up a plus-8 rating in about 12 minutes a game. Schmidt also is a plus-8 during that span and has seen his minutes increase from around 12 per game to nearly 20 per contest. He has played more than 23 minutes in each of the last two contests with Carlson out.

Taylor Chorney has played well in Brooks Orpik's absence (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Taylor Chorney has played well in Brooks Orpik’s absence (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In Carlson’s absence 21-year-old Connor Carrick, a former U.S. World Junior player with 34 games of NHL experience, has dressed and seen about 10 minutes of ice in each of the past two contests. Aaron Ness, a 25-year old d-man who appeared in 29 games with the New York Islanders and has 2-11-13 and a plus-12 rating in 27 outings at Hershey this year, also was recalled for the second time this season.

Ness has yet to see action for the Caps, but for both of these players the opportunity to practice with the NHL club and compete daily against the caliber of forwards on the Washington roster – while also being introduced to the Trotz culture and the head coach’s expectations and defensive systems – will prove invaluable to their individual progress and the team’s depth come April and May.

With Latta out, offseason pick-up Zach Sill, a former Penguin who entered last night’s contest with 83 NHL appearances under his belt, was recalled and stepped right as the fourth-line center. He appeared comfortable and got his feet wet, recording two shots on goal in 10 minutes. Those minutes seem likely increase Thursday and going forward with Beagle on the shelf.

Replacing Beagle’s combination of skill, defensive tenacity and faceoff prowess (he leads the team and is fourth in the league at 58 percent) will be more difficult than most people around the NHL expect. He’s been one of the team’s most consistent players the past two seasons and has proven to be a perfect fit as the third-line center. Fortunately the injury happened early enough in the season that hopefully he can be healed and ready to go for the playoffs while allowing some other players an opportunity to gain experience without crippling the team’s postseason chances.

Now What?

It remains to be seen how all of this will affect the Caps’ lineup, but the common thinking if Backstrom misses more time is that second-year wing Andre Burakovsky would be elevated to the second line with Marcus Johansson, who would likely shift from wing to center, and veteran Justin Williams. Burakovsky, a creative player with a good shot, has struggled a bit with his offensive game this year after being penciled in as a second liner in the offeseason.

He did score a goal on a nice feed from Johansson after Backstrom left Wednesday’s contest, just his third marker of the season after notching 22 points in 53 NHL games and showing great promise in the postseason last year. This season he has mostly bounced between the third and fourth lines, but if Backstrom is out for an extended period Burakovsky should play a more relaxed game knowing that he will be skating with players of similar skill levels without the fear of being demoted.

“He’s working hard every day and the puck hasn’t quite gone his way,” Johansson said after Wednesday’s game. “He’s had some chances and some looks, but it was fun to see him get a goal and see that smile after a goal.”

As a side note, center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who had been centering the second line for most of the past month, moved back to the top line after Backstrom’s injury and recorded two brilliant assists as the TKO line that had early season success was reunited.

“I thought Ovi and the big line really stepped up {in Backstrom’s absence},” Trotz said after the second win of the week against Buffalo. “I thought our defensive corps as a whole really was resilient and a guy like Zach Sill came in and did a really good job. I just thought that everybody said, ‘Let’s find a way to win.’ It doesn’t bother us; we just go. It’s an opportunity for guys to step up and they did.”

Will injuries mean more opportunities for Stanislav Galiev? (Chris Gordon/Caps Snaps)
Will injuries mean more opportunities for Stanislav Galiev? (Chris Gordon/Caps Snaps)

Rookie wing Stanislav Galiev, another skilled player who was one of the AHL’s top power-play point producers last year at Hershey, also will benefit from additional playing time. Galiev has been with the Caps all season and mostly has been a healthy scratch, recording two assists and a plus-3 rating in seven appearances. When he has been in the lineup Galiev has skated as mostly a fourth liner, which really is not conducive to his skill set.

Depending on how the lineup is shuffled, he could end up skating on the third or fourth line, but it would seem to benefit Galiev’s development more if he could see regular minutes on the third line and maybe even pick up a little available second-unit power-play time. His role will depend quite a bit on Backstrom’s status, and it seems unlikely he would be anything other than a fourth-liner whenever Backstrom returns to the lineup. Either way the opportunity to compete in NHL games on a consistent basis would be great for his development.

For the Washington Capitals this year isn’t about the playoffs or a Presidents’ Trophy or setting any regular-season records. It’s about the big picture and making a deep run in the posteason. While fans in D.C. may worry a bit at the notion of losing several key players to injuries, the team has positioned itself so that these injuries may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. And you can thank an amazing first half of the season for affording the team that luxury.