With the season already 25 percent over with, the Washington Capitals find themselves in a good spot — but not without quite a few bumps in the road.
From a myriad of injuries to a number of younger players needing to step up, as well as high expectations for veterans like Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Capitals have managed to remain a top contender and take over the Metropolitan Division. But how exactly are they doing it?
Let’s take a deeper dive into the secret behind their 14-3-5 record to open the 2021-22 campaign.
Alex Ovechkin Chasing Gr8ness With Best Start Yet
The Capitals have impressed in many rights to open the campaign. However, it’s their captain who has perhaps taken on most of the load. Entering the first year of a new five-year extension, the 36-year-old declared that he was “still young” and ready to take on the task of chasing down No. 99’s all-time goals record.
Though some wondered if he would be able to keep up with his high-scoring pace as time went on, he’s proven them wrong and is off to the best start of his 17-season career so far.
“The answer, it’s… I didn’t pay attention to all those bull**** talk,” Ovechkin said of those critics. “You know, it’s good for them. Good for me. Whatever.”
HIs 19 goals and 37 points through 22 games this season rank second in the NHL. He recently passed Connor McDavid in points and sits only behind Leon Draisaitl; both McDavid and Draisaitl are under the age of 26.
“I don’t know how to answer that question,” Ovechkin said of maintaining his top level of play as the game changes around him. “I try to do my job, and I think how I said our line play well. If we play like that, everybody going to get points.”
Ovechkin has been able to adapt to the ever-changing game without issue, playing with speed and physicality while finding new ways to score. Just one goal this season has come from the office, and he’s been dominant at 5-on-5. Not only that, with each game appears to come another piece of history. The Russian started the year sixth on the NHL’s all-time goals list and now sits alone at fourth with 749 career red lights. He is just 18 strikes behind Jaromir Jagr for sole possession of third. Ovechkin also needs just two more PPGs to pass Dave Andreychuk as the NHL’s all-time leading power-play goal scorer.
“He’s been excellent. That whole line has been excellent. [Kuznetsov] certainly factors into that. But at the end of the day, O is delivering a lot of offense with the way he’s playing the game.”
Evgeny Kuznetsov Is A Different Player
It’s no secret that this season was going to be a deciding one for No. 92. Not only had he been the subject of trade rumors and critiques following off-ice issues and inconsistency — along with a couple of positive COVID-19 tests — in 2020-21, but he had to step up even more with Nicklas Backstrom out of the lineup to start the season as well.
From the get-go, Kuznetsov was a new player. He came into camp in great shape and appears to have regained his touch. Kuznetsov been consistent and is showcasing his talent in one of his strongest campaigns yet.
Through 22 games, the Russian has seven goals and 27 points, along with several multi-point outings to boot. He is skating well and moving the puck effectively up ice. Kuzy is also still getting creative and crafty while showing awareness at both ends of the ice. Kuznetsov is able to make lethal passes and also rip the puck. He’s making smarter decisions and becoming even more versatile as a penalty killer and reliable forward.
“It was one of the years you want to forget, but at the same time, you want to remember,” Kuznetsov explained. “It is like when you lose the game in the playoffs or any Game 7, you sit in the locker room and feel that pain. And next year, you don’t want to feel that pain again, so you can use that as motivation, you can use that as a target, as a goal.
“When everything good in your life, you are not moving. you are not growing, you are not getting better,” Kuznetsov added. “It is fun to see everything and I hope in 10 years when I enjoy my life, I will enjoy this time and remember it.”
Head coach Peter Laviolette has praised Kuznetsov’s growth both on and off the ice this year. He has also seen a more trustworthy player this season, and one that has contributed greatly to the team’s success.
“There’s been ups and downs with Kuzy and I,” Laviolette said. “He’ll tell you the same thing, but it’s always been honest and it’s always been direct. The way he is playing right now is a credit to him. Just him. He put in the time this summer, he was on the ice all the time, he came to camp in great shape and he started the season the right way.”
Musical Bears Working Well For Capitals
Injuries have been plaguing the Capitals all season, starting with Backstrom going on the LTIR prior to the 2021-22 season. Not only that, but fellow top-6 forwards T.J. Oshie, Conor Sheary and Anthony Mantha are also on the shelf as well.
With the Capitals ailing, the rookies have stepped up in major ways, starting with Martin Fehervary. The Slovak defenseman was expected to make the NHL jump this season. So far, has done an outstanding job taking on a top-pairing role alongside John Carlson.
Fehervary has been a disciplined, shut-down defenseman who uses his size to his advantage and wins puck battles. He has also gotten more physical and involved offensively, and is gaining confidence with each game. His play has been a major boost for the blue line, which lost Brenden Dillon and Zdeno Chara in the offseason and saw Michal Kempny unable to get back to full speed and head to Hershey to continue recovery.
Washington also saw Connor McMichael make his full-time transition and grow into a strong top-6 forward who continues to progress and flourish in a top-6 role. His speed and vision help him generate several scoring chances, and he moves the puck efficiently while also improving when it comes to puck possession and face-offs.
The Capitals also saw Hendrix Lapierre come out of nowhere to make the opening night roster, and he impressed in a small sample size with his first NHL goal as he showcased his potential.
But, beyond that, the Bears have come in clutch big time. Washington has had to call up a number of players to help fill in for numerous ailing players, and they haven’t disappointed. Aliaksei Protas is now playing on the top line with Kuznetsov and Ovechkin and generating several high-danger chances while producing and making strong plays.
Brett Leason, Beck Malenstyn and Mike Sgarbossa have been the most recent combination to earn Laviolette’s trust. Their tough forechecking style and size has helped them maintain pressure and play a smart game.
Axel Jonsson-Fjallby also got his chance to show his worth at the NHL level, as has Garrett Pilon.
With the exception of Malenstyn, each of the Capitals’ call-ups this season have gotten on the scoresheet this season.
In regards to the backend, Zach Fucale also showed his potential in net. He boasted 21 saves for his first NHL shutout in his long-awaited debut. In fact, he is the first goaltender in franchise history to accomplish this feat.
Samsonov, Vanecek Finding Their Games
Washington can also rely on their tandem in net, especially with Ilya Samsonov’s play of late. The 24-year-old is 9-0-1 in 11 games this season with a .918 save percentage, 2.27 GAA and three shutouts. He has showcased his athleticism and quickness in net, while also utilizing flexibility, technique and confidence. He is still working to prove his worth on the one-year bridge deal he signed in the summer.
“I need to play like that every night, you know?” Samsonov said following his strong California stint, which has so far proven to be a potential turning point for him. “…I think I change my next page. This may be my next page because my start in season is not too great. I will believe, I will better.”
Vanecek has also been reliable in his sophomore season, coming in clutch with reliable saves. He is 4-3-4 with a .906 save percentage and 2.54 GAA through 12 games.
The Capitals are getting the performances they need from their stars and guys like Tom Wilson, who has taken on more responsibility as a leader. Their younger players are also making a statement. Consistency will be key for Washington to keep the momentum going and not step off the gas. But so far, so good.