Time, Age May Be Catching Up With Capitals

There’s no question that 2022 has not started off the way the Washington Capitals would have preferred, but the team’s recent play may be a symptom of a larger looming issue for the veteran club.

After an up-and-down December, head coach Peter Laviolette’s team kicked off the new year with an extremely lackluster 4-3 overtime loss on home ice against New Jersey on Jan. 2.

Jersey’s young guns, Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier led the way for the Devils, each tallying two points. It was Hischier who capitalized on a turnover near the hash marks in the Caps’ defensive end directly in front of goaltender Ilya Samsonov, taking a pass from Hughes and snapping a wrist shot past Samsonov to win the game for the Devils.

Following the game, Laviolette made it clear that he felt his group worked hard enough to play their way back from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits but that turnovers and playing a step behind cost the team much of the afternoon and ultimately wasted the effort.

“[Overtime] was probably right in line with the rest of the 60 minutes — we had it and we turned it over a lot in overtime,” he said. “We had it, we gave it back; we worked, got it back, gave it back again. Won the faceoff, gave it back. That was the story of the night, we were chasing the game.”

Head coach Peter Laviolette, Washington Capitals-Time, Age May Be Catching Up With Capitals
Head coach Peter Laviolette, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Nic Dowd, who scored his fifth of the season at the 13:23 mark of the third to draw the Caps within one and tilt the ice in Washington’s favor, agreed with Laviolette in his assessment as well.

“It’s so hard to [come back] and there’s no need to put ourselves in that situation against a young team like that,” he said. 

Making it hard on themselves was indeed the theme for the afternoon.

On New Jersey’s opening marker, the Caps lost an offensive zone faceoff — one of their challenges all season long — and the Devils promptly skated the puck 180 feet in the other direction. A soft shot from the left flank by Hughes that normally would’ve been easily corralled by Samsonov bounced freely off him back into the slot and winger Yegor Sharangovich had an easy tap in to put New Jersey on the board.

Just over a minute later, the Caps were chasing the puck around their own end and after some sustained lateral pressure, Damon Severson finished off a snapshot from a bad angle that hit the far post behind Samsonov and rattled into the net.

“We should be jumping on them right away in our building, with how much of a veteran team we have,” Dowd conceded.

Related: Top 5 Stanley Cup Contenders Through Halfway Point of 2021-22 Season

All told, it was a troubling effort and one that Washington was looking to shake off after an extended layoff (a mini-camp, Laviolette called it), following a COVID-related cancellation of the scheduled contest in Montreal on Tuesday night.

“If you give up 20-plus chances, you’re not going to win the game,” Laviolette said. “Tonight was not a clean game and we were chasing.”

Given how slow and unprepared the Caps looked against New Jersey on Sunday, a week which saw some veteran players — including Alex Ovechkin, Dmitry Orlov, and Carl Hagelin — get maintenance days while others worked on fine-tuning and system play, you really expected the group to come out with some pop when they took to the ice Friday night in St. Louis.

Things started off on the right foot — Daniel Sprong snapped the Caps into the lead two minutes into the game with his third goal in the last five contests. Sprong’s strong play, along with Aliaksei Protas’ development this season, has been among the Brighter spots of late.

After that, however, the game was dominated by St. Louis, with the Blues scoring five unanswered goals in a 5-1 loss.

Washington Capitals Ilya Samsonov-Time, Age May Be Catching Up With Capitals
Washington Capitals goaltender Ilya Samsonov (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The easy direction to point the finger at night’s end was toward Samsonov. The 24-year-old goaltender clearly had a rough night between the pipes, giving up four goals on 16 shots before being pulled for Zach Fucale. Focusing on Samsonov, however, ignores some other obvious recurring problems that are starting to become trends.

Washington’s power play continues to struggle (29th in the league, hovering around 15% conversion), going scoreless in three opportunities on the night.

A number of lost puck battles wound up creating chances for the Blues — arguably most notably on Pavel Buchnevich’s 11th goal of the season that gave St. Louis the lead midway through the game. On that play, Martin Fehervary had control of the puck not once, but twice in his own end before getting out-muscled by Buchnevich. After forcing the turnover, the slick winger promptly skated into the slot undefended and hammered home a return pass from Marco Scandella.

The two late second-period goals ended the night for Samsonov and, for all intents, the Capitals too. And, much like the loss to New Jersey, it felt like once again Washington was chasing the play.

With two losses to start the calendar year on the heels of 4 losses in 10 games in December, it begs the question of whether we’re starting to witness the slow deterioration of a veteran-dominated team that’s struggling to keep up against younger, hungrier, and more robust competition.

Up Next

The Capitals get right back at it on Saturday night against the Minnesota Wild. The Wild enter the game with a 20-10-2 record and are holding down the first Wild Card spot in the Western Conference with a 10-3-1 record at home in 2021-22.

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