The Washington Capitals are seven games into the 2021 season, and that seven-game stretch has been anything but business as usual for them. After a four-game road trip to start the season, the Caps had four vital members of the lineup enter COVID quarantine protocol: Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, and Ilya Samsonov (who tested positive for coronavirus). Washington has therefore played their last three games without their best goal-scorer, 1B center, #2 defenseman, and #1 goalie. How has that affected different areas of the team’s play? Let’s find out.
The Capitals’ offense has been relatively steady to start the season. They are averaging 3.43 goals and 28.3 shots per game, which is good for eighth-best and eighth-worst in the league respectively. The team shooting percentage of 12.1 is sixth-best with 24 goals on 198 shots. Coach Laviolette made it clear that one of his goals for the season was for the team to generate more shot chances, and it looks like the Capitals are trending in that direction after Tuesday’s win against the Islanders. They registered a season-high 37 shots on goal, including a 17-shot first period.
Another positive sign: the Capitals are getting offense from several skaters. 13 different players, 10 forwards and three defensemen, have scored at least one goal this season and 18 players have tallied at least one point. Scoring from up and down the lineup has been an issue for Washington in the past, so this trend is encouraging. It is also reassuring to know that the Caps can get on the score sheet even without players like Ovechkin and Kuznetsov in the lineup.
As Greg said a few days ago, the defense isn’t technically as bad as it looks and a team’s defense can be less sharp at the beginning of a season, especially under the guidance of a new coach. However, there are some clear areas in which the Capitals need to tighten up. They are allowing an average of 31.9 shots-against per game, ranked 22nd in the league, while only averaging 28.3 shots per game themselves. This -3.6 shot differential might not be hurting them too much now, but it is early in the season and it will eventually come back to haunt them. The Caps are also being too casual with the puck, which results in lazy plays that are easy to break up. If both the forwards and the defensemen become more intentional with their passing, their defense should improve.
One notable sore spot? The five-on-three shorthanded goal they allowed against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday. A lazy dump-in on the power play led to a Pittsburgh shorthanded breakaway.
The Capitals’ goaltending has been the most unreliable part of their lineup so far this season, although it isn’t necessarily due to the way the netminders are playing. Ilya Samsonov, who took over the starting goalie job in the wake of Braden Holtby’s departure in October, has only played two games for Washington this season because of his positive COVID test. In those two games, he saved 46 of 53 total shots for a .868 SV%. It is difficult to draw any real conclusion of how Samsonov’s play was trending because of the limited sample size, but his overall numbers are not encouraging.
Vitek Vanecek made his NHL debut in Buffalo in the Caps’ second game of the season, and he looked stellar. He looked much shakier in his second game, which was against the Penguins, but appears to have rebounded a bit in his next three starts. Vanecek has handled the surprise promotion to starting goalie well and has kept the Caps in some games they probably should have lost in regulation. He has a .918 SV% through five games and, even better, a .941 SV% at even strength. He still needs to work on his rebound control because he allows a lot of messy rebound opportunities, but he has made some incredible saves and is looking more and more sure of himself.
Overall, the Caps’ goalies have combined for a .909 SV% in all situations, which is 12th-best in the league, and a .926 SV% at five-on-five, tied for eighth-best. Amazing numbers? No. A good starting point for two young goaltenders who are adjusting to a full-time NHL playing schedule? For sure.
The Caps’ man-advantage has looked relatively solid through the first seven games of the season, despite being tied with the New Jersey Devils for the fourth-least power play opportunities so far. The power play is running at a 35.7% success rate, which is good for fourth-best in the league. The PP looked particularly good in the first few games of the season, making visibly better zone entries and communicating well. However, they have gotten a little sloppy in their most recent few games and the loss of Ovechkin on the power play has definitely hurt them offensively.
It’s no surprise that the Capitals take a lot of penalties - they have taken 28 trips to the box through the first seven games of the season. Thankfully, their penalty kill has looked solid at 76.9% to help compensate. They have allowed six power play goals against, including one five-on-three tally, for an average of 0.86 PPGA/game. The PK units have struggled a bit more in the last few games, but overall they look pretty cohesive.
A team’s best penalty killer on the ice needs to be their goalie, however, and unfortunately both Samsonov and Vanecek have struggled when one of their teammates is in the box. Samsonov has only faced eight shots on the PK through two games, and he has saved seven of them for a .875 SV% — not terrible by any means, but not great. Vanecek, on the other hand, has a .844 SV% on 32 shots against through five games. It is admittedly hard to not give him the benefit of the doubt because he has had to step into the starter role with two NHL games under his belt while Samsonov is out due to COVID, but it is a worrisome trend to keep an eye on.
Justin Schultz, welcome to Washington. The former Penguin took a game or two to get used to his new team, but boy oh boy has he turned things up lately. Schultz has a goal and an assist in both of the Caps’ two most recent games, including the game-winner against the Islanders last night. Schultz has primarily been paired with Brenden Dillon and the two of them seem to work well together. He has also gotten some power play time on the second unit, where he is already looking very comfortable. All in all? A great start to Justin Schultz’s career as a Capital.