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How Capitals Saved Their Season In Under A Month: ‘We Control Our Fate’

With a stellar December, the Washington Capitals turned around their season in less than a month’s time. But how did they pull it off — and in convincing fashion?

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WASHINGTON — After a 5-2 loss to the Calgary Flames on Dec. 3, the Washington Capitals were at a crossroads. There were flashes of strong play, but a lackluster start to the season followed them into the final month of the year. Then, in the span of three weeks, the Capitals became a different hockey team — and in wild fashion.

Not only did Washington quickly turn things around and dominate in several areas of the game, but it did so while four key players went down with injuries at different times: first Darcy Kuemper, who missed seven games, then Martin Fehervary, who missed 12 games, then T.J. Oshie, who has missed the last five games, and John Carlson, who is out indefinitely. Dmitry Orlov was also missing until Dec. 11.

To close out 2022, the Capitals got over .500 and climbed all the way up second to last in the Metropolitan Division to third, and they finished December with an 11-2-2 record. And, while the division race is getting tighter with plenty of hockey still left to play, Washington has been convincing in letting the rest of the league know that they are still a good hockey team.

"We're just collecting points," Alex Ovechkin said, adding, "I said right away, every point is going to be countable at the end. Right now, we try to do special things. We had a bad start to the year, lots of injuries, lots of mistakes. And right now, we kind of bounced back and play solid hockey."

When it comes to that "solid hockey," a lot went into this strong stretch of play. And it starts with the goaltending — mainly Charlie Lindgren.

Lindgren faced a tall task taking over for an injured Darcy Kuemper and made eight straight starts prior to Kuemper's return to play. Since Dec. 5, he's led the NHL in games played (10) and leads all goaltenders with at least eight games played in save percentage (.934) at all strengths.

The 29-year-old has won nine of his last 10 starts, including four straight, and while the Capitals tightened up on defense in front of him, he came up with quite a few ten-bell saves and gave the team the opportunity to win night in and night out as he continues his first full season at the NHL level.

We've been kind of talking about just kind of climbing that mountain a little bit. We kind of started behind the 8-ball a little bit, and now, we're working our way back and we're playing. We obviously got more than half the season left to go, but to be back in the hunt now and marching forward, I think it's a really good feeling for this team," Lindgren said.

READ MORE ON WHN: Alex Ovechkin's Hat Trick Headlines Washington Capitals' Wild 9-2 Victory Over Montreal Canadiens

"He was on fire in there," Kuemper, who played three games in December and boasted a .941 save percentage over that span, said of his goalie partner. "The team really rallied around that. Super happy for him, happy for our group. We needed the points."

At the other end of the ice, Washington saw Ovechkin hit historic marks, recording his 800th goal, passing Gordie Howe for second on the NHL's goals list and racking up two hat tricks. However, beyond the captain and other stars like Dylan Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Capitals also got much-needed consistency and offense from across the line at all strengths. The power play has been gelling and the penalty kill has moved into the top-10, but most impressive, the team is getting imperative 5-on-5 and secondary scoring.

Marcus Johansson's four game-winners in December led the league, and Conor Sheary had 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in 15 games over the month. Lars Eller also contributed with seven points over the course of the month. The fourth line of Protas-Dowd-Hathaway was also impressive, with Hathaway picking up points in three of his last four games to end December.

"We respect the game, we're not trying to do too much. We stick to the game plan, and I think we have a team that can play different styles, whatever's presented. We can play fast and physical, and we have skill and we have all the things we need to adjust, and then we just play," Eller said. "Talk about 5-on-5, we play good defense [too]."

Then, of course, there are the contributions from the blue line — mainly from Erik Gustafsson. The 30-year-old has taken on a top-pairing role amid injuries and has been a force to be reckoned with and is riding a seven-game point streak, with six goals — including his first career hat trick — over that span. With Carlson out, Gustafsson is helping fill in on the first power play and has been a catalyst offensively, and his 17 assists and 23 points lead all Washington defensemen this season.

"You know we have a couple guys on injured list right now, and we just gotta keep this train going as far as we can till the guys are back," Gustafsson said. "It's gonna be fun to see those guys coming back and we top of the standings, so we just got to try to stay up there the whole time and try to win every game we can. It's fun to play on the first power play and just try and take the opportunity as I can."

In addition to Gustafsson, extra defensemen like Matt Irwin and Alex Alexeyev have come in to play big minutes and help fill some voids. Irwin played just 17 games last season and has gone way beyond that total already and hasn't missed a beat. Not only that, but Trevor van Riemsdyk also continues to be versatile while Nick Jensen has played solid hockey to boot. Irwin played just 17 games last season and has gone way beyond that total already and hasn't missed a beat.

WHN FEATURES: Washington Capitals' Irwin Playing More Than Ever, Embracing Pressure 

Going into 2023, the Capitals have seen their offseason additions help fill the void, but they are also slated to get healthier and get some star power back, including Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson and Oshie. They all have all upgraded to contact jerseys and are getting closer, and with a fully healthy lineup, the Capitals believe that they can build on their success even more.

"We're very excited. Everybody excited to see Tom and Nicky back. Obviously, Osh is coming back… we just have to keep going, keep collecting points and you never know what's gonna happen."

But, beyond all of that, the Capitals find themselves playing as a unit and playing up to the standards that they have set for themselves over the last decade.

"From a system standpoint, we're executing how we need to for the system to work," Hathaway explained. "If we don't put the effort in, if that's not happening, system's not gonna work, doesn't matter what you put in front of us… there's no hole too big to get out of, and there's guys that have done this before and been successful and found ways to turn seasons around, turn negatives into positives.

"We also know how quick things can change. Last week, we were six or seventh place in the Metro, and today, we're third. How can we end up where we were next week?" Hathaway added. "So it's accountability, but also just knowing, being realistic and saying, 'Hey, we control our own fate. If we execute the way we need to for the system to work, we'll be successful."