The Washington Capitals experienced a euphoric season last year until being eliminated in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Each player excelled in his role, making the Capitals look like an Imperial Starfleet cruiser from “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” The blazing storm of Washington’s white and red enjoyed a six-game winning streak correlated to a change of lines, special teams, top players producing and resiliency.
Reunited and It Feels So Good
For years, defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner were Washington’s consistent pair on the blue line. Head coach Barry Trotz’s changes to the lineup, as a new head coach two years ago, resulted in Carlson and Alzner playing apart. Now, with a reshuffled top four, “Carlzner” — as the duo were formerly labeled — was reunited in the third period in a 3-2 overtime victory against the Buffalo Sabres on Dec. 5.
Since then, Trotz continued to ice the successful duo and Carlson has picked up four points in the last five games while Alzner has provided support on the back end.
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) December 16, 2016
Trots said in a interview with Washington Post reporter Isabelle Khurshudyan that, “It gives a freshness to a guy like Carlson or Alzner to get a new partner for the first time in a while.” Trotz employs his defensive lines to each have a puck mover and stay-at-home type player. Carlson is the big, flashy shooting defenseman while Alzer deploys a physical, defense first brand of hockey.
Big Guns on The Ice
To be the best requires that your best players play their best. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who had a benchmark year in 2015-16 with 77 points in 82 games, is proving why he is a top player in 2016-17. The Russian playmaker has 14 points in 30 games and contributed seven assists in Washington’s six victories.
The wizard-like center Nicklas Backstrom is collecting marks on the scoresheet as well. He had five points during the winning streak, including the overtime winning goal against the Boston Bruins on Dec. 7.
In addition, Washington’s power forward TJ Oshie played the hero in a thrilling contest against the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 16. After going down 3-2 less than a minute into the third period, Oshie tied the game by redirecting Dmitry Orlov’s shot. The game extended into a shootout, where Oshie and Kuznetsov beat Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward while Capitals netminder Philipp Grubauer turned aside both of Carolina’s attempts.
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) December 17, 2016
The Power Play Has Power
Hockey fans are familiar with it. Players are familiar with it. Ovechkin will be around his favorite place near the right circle dot eager to blast the puck top shelf. But when you look at the names who scored with the man advantage — Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson, Jakub Vrana, Carlson, Justin Williams, and Matt Niskanen — it’s a scoring by committee affair that has punched in seven goals on 16 power play attempts. Yes, that means close to scoring on every other power play opportunity and a 43.7% success mark. Adding another goal from Saturday’s loss ranks Washington’s power play 12th in the league with a 19.59% conversion.
On the other side, the penalty kill unit has staved off all but three Washington penalties. During their six-game win streak, the group wiped 21 of 24 penalties against. That’s an incredible 87.5% regardless of it being a small sample size. Despite losing to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday, the Caps shut down Montreal with the man advantage. Overall, Washington’s penalty kill has improved to 84%, which is three percent better than the league average, and ranked seventh best in the NHL.
A Resilient Bunch
Coming from behind became second nature to Washington. The Caps gave up the first goal in three games during their six-game winning streak, experienced lead changes several times and won half the games in overtime or a shootout. On Dec. 5, Buffalo opened the scoring and had a 2-1 lead entering the third period. Washington replied with a power play goal and Johansson scored 2:38 into overtime to grab the win.
Washington returned home to face the Boston Bruins. The Caps dominated early en route to a 3-0 cushion before Boston completely tilted the ice in their favor and tied the game, 3-3. The Capitals were outshot 23-6 after the first period. An exciting overtime ensued, which ended on a Backstrom shot squeaking through Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask to deliver Washington’s second win a row.
The third and fourth win of Washington’s streak were blowouts against Buffalo and the Vancouver Canucks. Next, the Caps surrendered the first goal in a physical affair with the New York Islanders on Dec. 13. Casey Cizikas and former Capital Jason Chimera left the game, but returned to the bench later during the game. Cizikas was cut on the arm falling along the corner boards.
Brett Connolly (even strength) and Justin Williams (PP) put Washington ahead 2-1. However, the Islanders quickly responded with a goal. Matt Niskanen regained the lead and eventually capped, no pun intended, Washington’s fifth win with a power play goal 10 minutes later.
Washington barely came out of Raleigh, NC with their sixth win. The game featured three lead changes and Washington edged the Hurricanes in the shootout.
The Capitals were one of two teams to enter Saturday night with a winning streak stretching more than five games. The Columbus Blue Jackets are the remaining team with an extensive winning streak — they have won nine games in a row. Washington proved during their streak they can dominate games and come from behind, a lethal pair of traits that are bound to reap rewards this season.
Caps Week Ahead
The Philadelphia Flyers are their next foes. It’s the first meeting between these division rivals since last year’s six-game opening round series that moved Washington into the next round. Games became heated as the Flyers extended the series after falling behind 3-0 in the series. There were some scary incidents such as this one in Game 3 as the Caps were ahead 4-1:
However, you can see Pierre-Édouard Bellemare was clearly concerned for Orlov and did not make the head the principle point of contact. And later in the same game, Flyers fans caused a delay of game penalty by throwing bracelets onto the ice. The incident does not represent all Flyers fans, but leans toward the bad blood between these clubs. The Flyers had their 10-game winning streak snapped by the Dallas Stars on Dec. 17.
The Capitals will return home to play the Tampa Bay Lightning. After starting out strong, the Lightning have floundered in the standings and won two of their last 10 games heading into a matchup with Detroit on Tuesday.
The Capitals are one of the few teams with a healthy lineup. Despite being so, the Capitals called up center Zachary Sanford from Providence on Dec. 17. He played well in the game against Montreal and has offensive upside and good puck control, despite being held off the score sheet.
Though there haven’t been many reports that general manager Brian MacLellan is shopping around the league this Christmas season, mynhltraderumors points out veteran defender Cody Franson could be picked up by the NHL trade deadline. Franson played a couple seasons under Barry Trotz in Nashville. The weakness in Washington, though it seems like MacLellan has done everything to make sure there are none, is the depth on the blue line.
Michael Mazzuca graduated from The University of Scranton with a degree in journalism and electronic media. Mike began writing for The Hockey Writers in December 2016. He has written for the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins as well as the Rockland Boulders independent baseball team. Follow him on Twitter at @MazzucaMike.