On Tuesday night, the Washington Capitals will take the ice for the season opener of their 45th season. It’s a busy week, with three games on the schedule that each bring their own brand of drama... so let’s get right back into the swing of things with a look ahead at Week 1 of the new season.
St. Louis Blues (Tuesday/8:00 pm Eastern). The Stanley Cup champions once removed visit the defending Stanley Cup champions in the season opener in what will be the 100th meeting all-time between the teams. The Caps have a 44-42-1 record, with 12 ties against the Blues. More recently, the Caps lost both meetings against the Blues last season, a 5-2 loss in St. Louis and a 4-1 loss in Washington 11 days apart in early January.
St. Louis had a remarkable season last year that bordered on historic. When they dropped a 2-1 decision on home ice to the New York Rangers, they closed the 2018 portion of their season with a 15-18-4 record. No team had fewer wins, and no team had fewer standings points (the Blues were tied with the Ottawa Senators in both categories with 15 wins and 34 points). They could not score, their 102 goals ranking fifth-lowest in the league, and a somewhat mediocre scoring defense (122 goals allowed through 37 games) could not make up for the anemic attack. Even the special teams offered little glimmer of hope, the power play ranked 16th as the new year dawned (20.3 percent) and the penalty kill ranked 18th (78.7 percent).
Then the Blues hosted the Caps to open the new year. St. Louis opened the scoring four minutes into the contest, the but the Caps wrapped goals by Alex Ovechkin and Brett Connolly around the first intermission to take a lead. The Blues stormed back late in the period with goals four minutes apart before pulling away with another pair of goals in the third period to take a 5-2 decision. Starting with that contest, the Blues posted a record of 30-10-5 in the 2019 portion of their regular season schedule. They had their shaky moments in the postseason, with each of their four series going six or seven games, including the final. But after losing what could have been a Cup-clinching game on home ice in Game 6 against the Boston Bruins, they went to Boston and took care of business with a 4-1 victory to win the first Cup in team history.
St. Louis returns both its top point getter among forwards (Ryan O’Reilly with 77) and top goal scorer among forwards (Vladimir Tarasenko with 33), as well as their top point getter/goal scorer among defensemen (Alex Pietrangelo with 13 goals and 41 points). They also return Calder Trophy runner-up as top rookie in goaltender Jordan Binnington (24-5-1, 1.89, .927, with five shutouts).
New York Islanders (Thursday/7:00 pm). After getting a night off after the opener in St. Louis against the defending champs, the Caps get to travel to New York to face the coach that took them to the Cup a year earlier in Barry Trotz. Last season, the Islanders spent the better part of the last two months of the season hot on the tail of the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division title, but the Caps held off the Isles, capturing the division by one standings point, the difference being the Caps extending one additional game to overtime before losing, securing a standings point, while the Islanders finished with one more loss in regulation.
There was no secret to the Islanders’ success. Hardly a team to light the lamp frequently (2.72 goals per game ranked 22nd in the league), they had the best scoring defense in the league (2.33 goals per game). No team had more games allowing two or fewer goals (44, tied with Nashville). They did it with what might be thought of as a “rope-a-dope” strategy. Only five teams in the league had worse shot attempts-for percentages at 5-on-5 last season than the Islanders (47.85), the worst among playoff contenders by quite a margin (Dallas ranked 22nd at 48.32 percent). They had particular trouble in this category when leading in games, where their SAT percentage ranked next to last (42.66 percent), only Ottawa doing worse (40.39 percent).
The Caps have a 109-90-6 record, with 13 ties, in 218 all-time regular season meetings between the clubs, despite having allowed 20 more goals over those games (704 to 684). Last season, the clubs split four games in odd fashion, each team sweeping the other on the road. The Caps won both games on Long Island and allowing a single goal in each game (4-1 on November 26th and 3-1 on March 1st), while the Islanders shut out the Caps twice in Washington (2-0 on January 18th and 3-0 on April 6th).
Carolina Hurricanes (Friday/7:00 pm). The week ends with the home opener against team that ended the Caps’ season last spring on the same sheet of ice. Carolina might be the up-and-coming team in the Metropolitan Division, the one in best position to break the strangle hold the Caps have had on the top spot over the past several years. The 46 wins they posted last season was the most they had in any single season since they posted 52 wins in 2005-2006, when they won the Stanley Cup.
The start the Hurricanes had last season gave little indication of success to come. They were 15-17-5 over their first 37 games, tied with the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers with the fewest standings points in the Metropolitan Division (35). Their offense was almost non-existent, their 90 goals in those 37 games far in arrears of the New York Rangers (104), the next weakest scoring offense at the time.
From December 31st, when they beat the Flyers, 3-1, they finished the season 31-12-2 over their last 45 games, the best record in the division, three wins and five points ahead of the Islanders. They had the top scoring offense in the Metro over that period (153 goals; 3.40 per game) and the second best scoring defense (115 goals; 2.56 goals allowed per game; trailing only the Islanders (93 goals allowed; 2.07 per game).
Carolina might have been one of those teams for which its record finally caught up to the way it played at a basic level. The Hurricanes had, by far, the best shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 in the Metro division in those tough first 37 games, their 56.50 percent overall surpassing the 51.31 percent of the Flyers. Over their last 45 games, when their record caught up to their shot attempts advantage, they actually slipped a bit in the category, but their 53.39 percent was still quite a bit better than the second-ranked Columbus Blue Jackets (50.78 percent).
The Caps have a 98-54-8 record, with 14 ties, all-time against the Carolina franchise (including games against the Hartford Whalers). The Caps swept the season series against the ‘Canes last season, taking a pair of multi-goal decisions in Washington (3-1 on December 27th and 4-1 on March 26th), while grabbing a pair of one-goal wins in Carolina (6-5 in a shootout on December 14th and 3-2 on March 28th). A lot of good it did them in the end.
- Alex Ovechkin. In 14 season openers over his career, Ovechkin is 10-7-17, even. He has goals in four of his last six season openers.
- John Carlson. Over the last two seasons, Carlson is the only defenseman to have recorded 30 or more power play points in each season. He is one of three defensemen to have done it twice over the last ten seasons, Keith Yandle (in 2013-2014 and 2018-2019) and Erik Karlsson (2013-2014 and 2014-2015) being the others.
- T.J. Oshie. After a bit of a sluggish 2018 portion of the season in which T.J. Oshie went 5-12-17 in 27 games, he went 14-24-38 in 42 games in the 2019 portion of the regular season.
- Christian Djoos. Djoos has one goal in his last 77 regular season games.
- Chandler Stephenson. Stephenson struggled some on the road last season. He was the only forward appearing in more than one game not to score a road goal (he had three assists), and he tied for a team-worst minus-10 plus-minus rating (with Devante Smith-Pelly).
- Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom shows up in an odd way in this section. In the 2019 portion of the season last year, he had 30 points in 42 games, but he was a team-worst minus-12 over the 42 games in which he played.
- When Braden Holtby shut out the Boston Bruins in last year’s season opener, he became only the second goalie in Caps history to record a shutout in a season opener and the first to do it in 20 years. Olaf Kolzig the other season opener shutout in team history, a 1-0 whitewashing of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to open the 1998-1999 season.
- Alex Ovechkin’s hat trick to open the 2017-2018 season for the Capitals against the Ottawa Senators was not the first season opener hat trick in team history, but there has been only one other in the last 40 years. Mikhail Grabovski turned the trick against the Chicago Blackhawks in a 6-4 win in the opener of the 2013-2014 season.
- Nicklas Backstrom has two career three-point games in season openers. They came almost a decade apart, the first in 2009, the other last season. In both games, he had three assists and was a plus-1. In both instances, the opponent was the Boston Bruins.
Potential Milestones to Reach This Week:
- Alex Ovechkin could break a tie with Luc Robitaille for fourth-place all-time in career power play goals (247).
- With six points, John Carlson would jump over Alexander Semin and Kelly Miller (408 points) into 15th place on the all-time list of Capital point scorers.
- With six blocked shots, Dmitry Orlov will have 500 for his career, the tenth Capital to reach that mark since the statistic was established in 1997-1998.
- With an empty-net goal, T.J. Oshie would become the fifth player in team history to record ten or more empty-net goals as a Capital.