Opening Night is almost here, and with it we return to our weekly snapshots of the week ahead. Week 1 is a light week for workload, but the two opponents promise to make it one packed with drama.
New York Rangers (Wednesday/7:30 pm at Capital One Arena)
On paper, the season begins on Wednesday at home against the New York Rangers, but in a sense, it began 7:40 into the second period of a game at Madison Square Garden. That is when all hell broke loose behind the Capitals’ net. In the aftermath, the Rangers decided to toughen up their roster, apparently with Tom Wilson specifically in mind, adding Ryan Reaves, Barclay Goodrow, Patrick Nemeth, Sammy Blais and Jarred Tinordi, all of whom add a physical and/or size dimension the Rangers felt they needed to deal with Wilson.
What it means for the season opener is that the Rangers, who seemed to be employing a strategy of rebuilding their skilled positions, are now trying for what they might consider a balance of talent and toughness. On the skill side, this is a team that finished tenth in scoring offense last season, seven players with double digits in goals and nine with at least 20 points.
As for whether the changes the Rangers have made improve their playoff hopes, one Web site places them right on the edge, a 51 percent probability of reaching the postseason. There are others who are more bullish on the Rangers’ chances and some a bit bearish.
As for this week’s matchup, we get a first glimpse of whether the Rangers are achieving balance or pursuing colliding strategies of talent versus toughness.
Tampa Bay Lightning (Saturday/7:00pm at Capital One Arena)
The Caps and the Lightning have along history, first as Southeast Division opponents, then as inter-division rivals with a common goal of defeating the other on their way to a long playoff run. These two teams have won three of the last four Stanley Cups, the Caps in 2018 and the Bolts in each of the last two seasons. But whereas the Caps can see their window of competitiveness closing, the Lightning are still squarely in their wide-open window of competitiveness with a decent chance at a three-peat of Cups.
Tampa finished eighth in scoring offense last season and sixth in scoring defense. They were ninth in power play efficiency and fourth in penalty killing. They were tenth in shots on goal per game, ninth in fewest shots allowed per game. They finished ninth in shot attempts-for at 5-on-5. They were ninth in credited hits per 60 minutes. Small wonder a team with this kind of high-ranked, consistent top-ten balance won a Stanley Cup.
On an individual level, their seven players with double digits in goals seem a bit unimpressive, but the Lightning had 11 players with at least 20 points. Not bad for a 56-game season. And, they had 13 players with game-winning goals. It was a team that could beat you from a range of possibilities.
If anything, this year’s squad that the Caps will face on Opening Weekend, is deeper with the additions of Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Zach Bogosian, and Brian Elliott in goal. This contest will be an early measuring stick for the Capitals.
- T.J. Oshie. Oshie led the Caps in scoring from April 1st to the end of the regular season last year (13-5-18 in 19 games), his shooting percentage of 31.7 percent leading the team (minimum: 10 games), and his goal total almost double that of the second ranked Capitals, which brings us to…
- Conor Sheary. Over that same period to end the regular season, Sheary finished 7-3-10.
- Daniel Sprong. In that April 1 to the end of the regular season period, Sprong tied Sheary for second place I goals (seven), three of them game-winners to top the team in that statistic over that period.
- Anthony Mantha. Upon his arrival in trade from Detroit, Mantha scored a goal in each of his first four games with the Caps. He did not have another in his last ten regular season games or five playoff games.
- Nicklas Backstrom. From April 1st to the end of the regular season, Backstrom had 14 assists, but he managed only two goals on 32 shots (6.3 percent shooting) and none on nine shots in five postseason games. That finish was perhaps a product of an injury for which he is still rehabilitating, his participation in the 2021-2022 season delayed for an unknown period of time.
- Ilya Samsonov. After a hot start last season (7-1-1, 2.22, .917, one shutout in ten games), he finished the regular season with a .886 save percentage over nine games and went 0-3-0, 2.99, 886 in the postseason.
- If the Caps allow two power play goals to the Rangers, it will mean an even 200 power play goals allowed to the Blueshirts in the all-time series between the clubs.
- The Caps did not score a first period goal in any of the four games played against the Rangers at Capital One Arena last season.
- If the Caps so much as take the game against Tampa Bay to overtime, they will have earned 100 standings points on home ice in 66 games of the all-time series against the Lightning.
Potential Milestones to Reach This Week (or soon):
- Needs two games played to reach 800 in his career.
- Needs two even strength assists to reach 150 for his career.
- Needs one even strength goal for 100 in his career.
- Needs one goal for 100 in his career.
- Needs four penalty minutes for 200 in his career.
- Needs one goal to tie Marcel Dionne for fifth place (731 goals) all-time.