The Re-CAP – Washington Capitals Week in Review

Nicklas Backstrom
Nick Backstrom looked like he hadn’t missed a beat when returning to action Saturday. (Icon SMI)

Heading into Tuesday’s first road game of the year, the Washington Capitals had to be encouraged by their first week of action as the 2015-16 NHL season revs up. If you had told Barry Trotz before the season that his team would play three of those first four games without world-class center Nicklas Backstrom and one game without him and superstar Alex Ovechkin, there’s little doubt that the understated, straight-shooting coach would have gladly accepted a 3-1 mark.

Predictably, given the lineup situation, the 3-1 record has come with its ups and downs, but Trotz has already learned quite a bit about his team in just one week of action. The team looked a little out of sync and lethargic opening night, but led 2-0 early in the game en route to a 5-3 victory against New Jersey that featured Ovechkin’s first ridiculous, head-shaker of a goal this season.

Ovechkin overslept, was late to the pregame skate thanks to an alarm snafu and was subsequently benched for Game 2, a stinker of a 5-0 loss to the then-hot San Jose Sharks in which Washington was outskilled, outskated, outhustled and flat-out dominated all night long.

The team rebounded with great first- and third-period efforts in a 4-1 win vs. the defending Stanley Cup-champion Blackhawks Thursday before icing its first complete lineup of the year – and turning in its best all-around effort of the season – in Backstrom’s return Satrday, a 4-1 win against Carolina.

For his part, Backstrom looked like he hadn’t missed a minute, controlling the game’s tempo while on the ice, frequently demonstrating his uncanny vision with slick and accurate passes and notching a goal and two assists in 15 minutes of ice time.

Barry Trotz had some less-than-kind words for his team early in the week. (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

“I thought we were a little rusty coming out Game 1,” Trotz said. “Game 2 I didn’t like our game at all. We weren’t up to NHL pace, if you will, in that game. I loved our response against the Blackhawks, and I thought our response {Thursday} was good. Our last two first periods, something we hadn’t been real strong at last year, they’ve been good. We’re 3-1 going on the road, and I think that’s the biggest positive. We now how important it is to get in the race, be in the race and stay in the race.

“We’re finding out a lot about our team,” he continued. “I think we found out a lot about our team last year. When we have a lead I think we’re managing the game way better at this point than we did last year. Last year we were pretty nervous on the bench early and that sort of went away as the season went on. There’s a calmness about our bench right now, which is really good. Hopefully we’ve got guys maturing and playing. You can see there’s chemistry in some of the lines, and we’ve got some pretty good team speed.”


Five Things We Learned The First Week

1. Nicklas Backstrom is really good – The understated Swedish center came back from hip surgery after missing the season’s first three games and appeared to be in mid-season form. Sure, his 15 minutes of action were four to five below where he ultimately will be, but no one expected him to get his full allotment of minutes the first time out. Most people also probably didn’t expect him to set up a pair of goals and net one of his own.

Backstrom just brings a sense of calm and order to the ice. He is able to slow the game to the pace he wants and carve up the opposition with pinpoint passes and smart plays that help the team maintain possession. The power play, which had been good at 3-for-11 in his absence, was taken to another level by his presence, going 2-for-2 against the Canes. Carolina had all four defenders on Backstrom’s side of the ice on T.J. Oshie’s extra-man goal, but he still managed to sneak a pass into the high slot right on his new teammate’s tape for the one-timer.

“That’s how special he is, when you watch a guy who hasn’t played an exhibition game and he comes back into an NHL game in a fast game against a fast team and looks like he hasn’t missed a beat.,” Trotz said. “You realize how good he is when he’s back in the lineup and what he does for our lineup. It looked pretty easy for him.”


Andre Burakovsky Capitals
Andre Burakovsky has had a little trouble adjusting to center. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

2. Andre Burakovsky might not be ready to be a full-time NHL Center – After spending the first three games as the second-line center between Marcus Johansson and newcomer Justin Williams, Burakovsky was dropped to the fourth line against Carolina. First of all, it’s not a sign that the talented second-year player is on the verge of losing his roster spot or being shipped back to Hershey for more seasoning. Someone had to be moved with Backstrom suiting up, and Johansson had just turned in one of his best games as a Cap against Chicago while Williams had been one of the team’s most consistent energy guys in the first three contests.

In addition, the third line of Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson had been very consistent in the opening three games, with the fourth line struggling (Sean Collins was shipped out in favor of Chandler Stephenson and Michael Latta was scratched after just two games) in those early outings. So it made sense to move Burakovsky back to wing, where he became very comfortable last year, on the fourth line.

The Austrian-born Swede responded by playing his best game of the year, creating several scoring chances for himself and his linemates and generally looking more comfortable on the ice. In previous games as a center Burakovsky just didn’t seem to have a great feel for where to be and what to do and at times appeared to be over-thinking everything.

Burakovsky skating on the fourth line creates an interesting combination of speed, skill and a willingness to play in the tough areas. Stephenson’s speed and grit has been noticeable in his first two NHL contests and Brook Laich, the wing opposite Burakovsky, is a seasoned veteran who has scored 25 goals at the NHL level and been versatile enough to see both power-play and penalty-kill minutes during his career.


Marcus Johansson
Marcus Johansson has stepped up to the challenge of the younger players. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

3. Marcus Johansson has come to play this year – All summer long, before and after he signed his new contract, Johansson appeared to be almost an afterthought. The word filtering down from Caps General Manager Brian MacLellan was that Burakovsky had the inside track on a second-line spot along with Williams and Evegeny Kuznetsov – not Marcus Johansson.

Backstrom’s absence, however, bumped Kuznetsov up to the top line and allowed Johansson to open the season playing alongside Burakvosky. Coming off of the best overall year of his career (20-27-47, plus-6), Johansson made the most of his opportunity in the first three games, and for the time being at least, appears to be a second-line fixture.

So far this year Johansson has a goal and two assists in the first four outings and has seen time on both the power play and penalty kill. He has used his speed to create quality scoring chances for himself and his skill to set up teammates. But more important has been his willingness to be a net-front presence, something that is not always a pleasant experience. Johansson has directly screened that goaltender on Washington goals three times in the last two games and has camped out right on the doorstep being a nuisance and looking for a rebound several other times.


4. The third defensive pairing has been an adventure –It was no secret entering the season that the Caps’ biggest question mark was its third defensive pairing of 24-year-olds Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt. The first week of the season did nothing to dispel that theory, with Orlov and Schmidt struggling to move the puck out of the zone, losing coverage in front of the net and generally not making great decisions.

Sitting at minus-1 after two games, Schmidt was benched in favor of Taylor Chorney, who was signed away from Pittsburgh this summer to provide depth on the blue line. Whenever one door closes another one opens, and thus far in two games Chorney has been a calming presence who has played within himself and made mostly good decisions with the puck in the defensive zone. He is plus-1 in his two appearances and got 15:31 of ice time against the Hurricanes, the most of any third-pair defenseman thus far.

“In a couple of key moments {Chorney} had good blocks and good box-outs,” Trotz said after Thursday’s game. “He skated, if you will, and was confident with the puck. Sometimes you have situations where you have to skate the puck out of trouble, and he was able to do that. He was pretty solid.


Ovechkin took his benching like the leader he has become. [Photo by Anna Armstrong]
Ovechkin took his benching like the leader he has become. [Photo by Anna Armstrong]
5. The culture is the culture, no matter who you are – When Ovechkin wasn’t on the ice for the morning skate prior to the San Jose game, panic swept across Caps Twitterverse. Was someone in his family sick? Would he have to leave the team for an extended period? Was he hurt or sick himself? Did he get in trouble with the law?

Then came the updates. It’s five o’clock and he’s not at Verizon center. 5:30. 5:45. Finally word spread that he had arrived about an hour before faceoff. Then it became public that he wouldn’t play for “personal reasons.” The question was asked after the game. “Personal reasons are just that, personal,” Trotz said. It was asked again all over the internet and then the rumors of a family illness started, which were immediately refuted.

Finally, at the next practice Ovechkin stepped forward and confronted the issue head-on, telling the world that he had set his alarm for 8:30 p.m. instead of 8:30 a.m. and overslept. Some people doubted the excuse, and of course the haters wondered how a leader could do such a thing when a 10-year-old can set a phone alarm. But, as a leader who always has held himself accountable and never dodged an issue, Ovechkin answered the questions with a bit of a sense of humor.

“It sucks,” he said when questioned about how it felt to sit out. “But it’s team rules.”

And then he responded to the, “What time did you get up?” question by asking with a wry smile, “Maybe you should ask what time I went to bed.”

Trotz’ benching of Ovechkin is just one more indication, a very important one, of how serious he is about staying true to the culture he has been developing since the beginning of last season. No one is above the rules. Not even our captain. Our superstar. And Trotz was willing to risk an early-season game, which he ultimately lost, to prove that point.

Would he have done the same thing for an important game with playoff indications in March? Probably not. But by setting the tone now he won’t have to worry about issues like that later on when the season is on the line.


Caps Recap

Player of the Week – John Carlson

He wasn’t perfect the first couple of games in terms of d-zone coverage and moving the puck, but who was? Carlson has gotten better defensively each game and leads the team in scoring with 2-3-5 while logging 24 minutes of ice time per game. In addition he has picked up the power-play slack with the departure of Mike Green, notching 1-2-3 with the extra man. Carlson also has five blocked shots.


Play of the Week – Alex Ovechkin

Ovechkin’s opening-night, pull-it-between-the-legs-then-roof-it goal was similar to the goal ranked third in the NHL last year by NHL Network and was the network’s goal of the week this week. Ironically both tallies came against the Devils.


Plus/Minus – Taylor Chorney/Nate Schmidt; Chandler Stephenson/Sean Collins

Chorney and Stephenson have shown promise in replacing Schmidt and Collins, both of whom struggled in the first two games. Stephenson and Collins were both surprises in training camp, with Collins getting the opening-night roster nod, primarily because of his previous NHL experience, and Stephenson heading back to Hershey. Both have since exchanged places, with Stephenson turning in two strong NHL outings. Chorney has been solid on the blue line in two games since replacing Schmidt on the third defensive pairing.


Worthless Info

Carlson was the most expensive defenseman in the latest list of salaries published by online daily fantasy sports company DraftKings.