The Washington Capitals began their pursuit of the Stanley Cup with a fine Week 1, earning wins in both games of a two-game set against the Buffalo Sabres before dropping an extra-time decision to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The schedule reverses itself in Week 2, the Caps opening with the Pens to wrap up their two-game set, then starting the home schedule with a pair of contests against Buffalo. Here is the week ahead.
Pittsburgh Penguins (Tuesday/7:00pm)
The Capitals and Penguins renewed their rivalry on Sunday afternoon in the first of a two-game set, the Penguins emerging victorious in a shootout, 4-3, after the Caps twice took a one-goal lead. The teams meet to end the two-game series of the season on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh. Last season, the Caps had a points percentage against the Pens over .500 (.667 on a 2-1-0 record) for the first time since 2016-2017, when the Caps went 2-0-2 against Pittsburgh.
The Penguins got off to a rocky start to the new season before their first win at the Caps’ expense, dropping a pair of decisions to the Flyers in Philadelphia by a combined 11-5 margin. Although the results in those two games were similar, the Pens losing by three-goal margins in each, how they got to those results were poles apart. In the opener, the Pens went into the third period down a goal, but they gave up three third period goals, the last two only 20 seconds apart, to drop a 6-3 decision. In the rematch, the Flyers jumped all over the visitors, scoring three goals in the first 11:30 of the contest and coasting to a 5-2 win. It was the first time that Pittsburgh lost back-to-back games in regulation to open a season since 2015-16, when they dropped their first three decisions. Not that it mattered. Pittsburgh went on to win the first of two consecutive Stanley Cups.
The Penguins finished the 2019-20 campaign as a team that did less than what might have been expected of it. They possessed some of the most fearsome offensive talent in the league, yet they finished the season ranked just tenth in scoring offense (3.20 goals per game), although much of that might have been a product of Sidney Crosby missing significant time to sports hernia surgery. That might also explain an underperforming power play that finished in the middle of the pack last season (19.9 percent/16th). On the other side of the puck, the Pens have long been an underrated defensive team, yet they finished 12th in scoring defense (2.84 goals allowed per game), although they did have a top-ten penalty kill (82.1 percent/tenth).
Then there were the playoffs, a disaster for the Penguins, who one only once in four games against the Montreal Canadiens in the qualifying round to end their season prematurely. Whether due to that flameout or the usual churn in NHL rosters, the Pens were retooled in the off-season, parting ways with goalie Matt Murray (Ottawa), forward Patric Hornqvist (Florida), forward Nick Bjugstad (Minnesota), forward Patrick Marleau (San Jose), forward Conor Sheary (Washington), forward Dominik Simon, (Calgary), defenseman Jack Johnson (New York Rangers), and defenseman Justin Schultz (Washington). They added forwards Mark Jankowski, Colton Sceviour, and Kasperi Kapanen; defensemen Cody Ceci and Mike Matheson; and they made Tristan Jarry the clear number one goaltender after a breakout season last year. In addition, the Pens added Todd Reirden as an assistant coach after he was relived of his head coaching duties in Washington after last season.
Buffalo Sabres (Friday/7:00pm and Sunday, 3:00pm (note time change))
The Caps face the Buffalo Sabres in the home opening series, facing the team they defeated twice in Buffalo to open the season. The Sabres are swimming against the current of their own history. They have not reached the postseason since 2010-2011 and have not won a playoff series since 2006-07, when they reached the Eastern Conference final for a second consecutive year.
Since the Sabres fell into this streak of years failing to make the playoffs, starting in 2011-2012, they have only 260 wins, fewest of any NHL team since then, save for the Vegas Golden Knights, who only entered the league in 2017-18. That is 31 fewer wins than the next team up the ladder of win rankings (Edmonton: 291 wins). Their 608 standings points over that span are similarly ranked, 55 fewer points than the Oilers over that span. Their scoring offense is dead last among NHL teams over that period (2.38 goals per game), and their 3.01 goals allowed per game on defense is worse than every team in the league except the Oilers (3.04). Their special teams have been similarly disappointing, their 25th ranked power play (17.8 percent) being more than canceled out by a penalty kill that ranks 31st of 31 teams (79.1 percent). Buffalo has not come by their misfortune by chance.
Against the Caps last week, the Sabres really played just well enough to lose close. They persevered in the opener, tying the game after allowing the first goal of the contest, and then twice crawling back to within a goal after falling behind by two before they yielded an empty-netter late for the 6-4 final. In the rematch, they just could not solve goalie Vitek Vanecek in his NHL debut. They out-shot the Caps, 31-21, and they out-attempted the visitors, 52-31. But except for a lone shot that eluded Vanecek when the puck caromed off Tom Wilson’s leg in front, the Sabres could not finish.
This cold still be an issue for Buffalo, even with the addition of former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall on a one-year contract. Buffalo had only five skaters finish last season with double digits in goals, only two with more than 20 (jack Eicehl: 36, and Sam Reinhart: 22).
- Tom Wilson. Wilson has a goal and a pair of assists in the first three games of the season, a better start than he had last season when he went without a point in each of his first three games.
- Nicklas Backstrom. Fast starts and Nicklas Backstrom are well-acquainted. With four points in the Caps’ first three games this season (2-2-4), Backstrom has at least three points in his first three games for the seventh time in his last eight seasons. When he had an assist in the Caps’ 6-4 win over Buffalo in the season opener, it was his 100th assist recorded in the month of January for his career.
- Alex Ovechkin. The other Capital with four points in his first three games is the Captain. He did not get his first goal of the season until he victimized the Penguins on Sunday, but he does have three assists in three games. Last season, he did not record his third assist of the season until Game 8.
- Dmitry Orlov. It has not been a good start for defenseman Dmitry Orlov. He has no points over this first three games and is tied with John Carlson for worst plus-minus (minus-4).
- Richard Panik. Another Capital looking for his first point of the season is forward Richard Panik who has yet to be penciled into the score sheet after 37 minutes of ice time so far.
- Ilya Samsonov. “Uneven” would be the best adjective for goalie Ilya Samsonov’s game so far. At times he has been excellent, and at other times quite a bit less so. Not every goal is a goalie’s fault, but he gets the credit and the blame. With 39 saves on 46 shots to date (.868 save percentage), he has to improve.
- After all these years, the Caps still have a losing record against the Sabres, and not just a losing record, but a “WTF” record. In 165 games played between the teams, the Caps are 60-84-6, with 15 ties against the Sabres. Of course, starting the all-time series 2-31 with five ties from 1974-1975 through 1982-1983 didn’t help.
- No Capital has ever scored a hat trick against Buffalo on home ice. In fact, only two players in Caps history have hat tricks against Buffalo, and neither of them is Alex Ovechkin. Peter Bondra did it on April 3, 1996, scoring four goals in a 5-1 win in Buffalo (his fourth goal was his 50th of the 1995-1996 season), and Jaroslav Svejkovsky scored four goals in an 8-3 win in Buffalo on April 13, 1997.
- Only once in Caps history has a goaltender faced more than 30 shots against Buffalo and pitched a shutout. Braden Holtby stopped all 31 shots he faced in a 2-0 blanking of the Sabres on December 28, 2015.
Potential Milestones to Reach This Week:
- Alex Ovechkin needs one goal to tie Mike Gartner (708) for seventh on the all-time goal scoring list.
- Ovechkin needs one game-winning goal to break a tie for fourth all-time with Teemu Selanne and Brett Hull (all currently with 110).
- Nicklas Backstrom needs one overtime goal to break a tie with Mike Green (currently with eight apiece) and take over second place alone in Caps history (Ovechkin: 23).
- If Backstrom does not get that OT goal, Evgeny Kuznetsov needs only one to tie Backstrom and Green for second place all-time on the Caps’ list.
- If Backstrom dresses for all three games this week, he will pass Peter Bondra for third place on the all-time list of games played for the Caps (Bondra has 961 games played for the Caps).
- With six penalty minutes, Tom Wilson would tie Brendan Witt (1,035) for fifth place on the all-time Caps’ rankings.
- John Carlson needs one game-winning goal to take over the top spot in Caps history among defensemen (currently tied at 24 with Kevin Hatcher).
- If Carlson finishes the week at plus-2, he will tie Scott Stevens for second place (plus-90) in career plus-minus for the Caps (Rod Langway: plus-116).