Another season, another round of Capital Vibe Checks! The Washington Capitals are ten games into the 2021-2022 season, through which they have grabbed 14 of 20 possible points with a record of 5-1-4. The Caps managed to make it all the way through October before recording their first regulation loss of the season, a 3-2 Tampa Bay Lightning victory on November 1. How did they get there, and whose hot starts played a part? Let’s find out.
The Capitals have maintained a relatively steady level of offensive production to start the season. Their 36 goals-for is tied with the Blues for fourth-best in the league, behind the Panthers, Oilers, and Hurricanes, and their goals per game is ranked fifth at 3.60. They are averaging 31.8 shots per game, and despite that ranking 14th in the league, they have yet to have a truly disappointing night where the shot counter is concerned. This was a notable problem for the Caps last season, so fingers crossed this trend sticks. They have surpassed 30 shots in a game six times, have not yet dipped below 25, and hit at least 40 shots against both the Avalanche and Panthers.
Only two players to play in at least one game for the Caps have yet to record a point this season (Garnet Hathaway, Aliaksei Protas), and 16 of the 21 skaters who have gotten on the scoresheet have scored at least one goal. The Caps have also seen four (!) first NHL goals to start the season, with Hendrix Lapierre, Martin Fehervary, Brett Leason, and Connor McMichael all tallying goals. Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov are leading team scoring with 18 and 13 points respectively.
One cause for concern: the Capitals have a habit of taking their foot off the gas in the third period. They have scored 11 first period goals, 15 second period goals, and only ten third period goals. 15 goals in the second is tied with the Blues for best in the league, but ten in the third is tied with the Maple Leafs for 15th. The Caps need to make sure they are playing a full 60 minutes of offense every game, even if they have the lead. When they ease up, opponents get too comfortable.
It seems as though a full offseason and preseason did Peter Laviolette’s Capitals a lot of good, because it looks like the Caps finally understand his defensive system. Until last night’s game against the Panthers, there had not been any instances of sustained breakdowns in the defensive zone for Washington. There have, of course, been moments of broken coverage, but their defense is solid as a whole. They have allowed 27 goals against, which averages to 2.70 per game, and they are doing an excellent job suppressing opponents’ shots through a lot of the defensive zone. Their 26.5 shots-against per game is the second-lowest in the NHL, behind the Kraken’s 26.2, and they were even leading the league through November 1 with 25.8. The Caps have only allowed two opponents to surpass 30 shots in a game, the Senators with 37 and the Panthers with 33.
Overall, the Capitals just seem more focused on their defensive play than they have in recent memory. This is the kind of attitude a lot of people hoped Coach Laviolette would bring to the team last year, so it is good to see it taking shape.
There was, once again, uncertainty surrounding the Capitals’ goalie situation entering this season. The starting goalie spot was anything but solidified, and both Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov had the opportunity to step up and take control. Ten games into the season, it appears as though Vitek Vanecek has done just that. He has started six games so far, compared to Samsonov’s four. His .902 SV% and 2.49 GAA are fine, but his numbers at 5v5 jump considerably: .946 SV% and 1.26 GAA. Samsonov, on the other hand, seems to be struggling a bit. He has posted a .893 SV% and 2.91 GAA through four appearances. His numbers improve less notably than Vanecek at 5v5, .907 SV% and 2.53 GAA, but he has recorded Washington’s sole shutout of the season thus far.
One glaring issue from last season’s goaltending was rebound control, both for Vanecek and Samsonov. Thankfully, both netminders are doing better in that department. Even just the eye test will tell you that — they generally seem more comfortable controlling rebounds and handling the puck. Among the 46 goalies with at least 150 minutes played, Vanecek ranks T-fourth in the league and first in the Metro Division with just eight rebound attempts against in all situations. When looking at just 5v5 play, Vanecek is at the top of the league with a whopping one rebound attempt against. Samsonov, while not quite keeping pace with Vanecek, has made a marked improvement as well. His ten rebound attempts against in all situations ranks T-10th in the league, and his nine at 5v5 is tied for seventh-best. Both goalies have lowered their rebound attempts against/60 considerably compared to last season: Vanecek from 2.81 to 1.33 and Samsonov from 3.02 to 2.42. Neither Vanecek nor Samsonov had particularly good rebound showings agains the Panthers last night, but hopefully it was just a blip and the overall trend continues.
The Caps’ power play has been very inconsistent to start the season, with more downs than ups. To be fair, the ups have been great to watch when they happen. The thing is, they are few and far between right now. The Caps started the season off with a bang on opening night against the Rangers, scoring three power play goals on six opportunities. Their zone entries on the man advantage were so crisp, they were skating with purpose and urgency, and their puck movement was solid. After that game, however, came a stretch of five games without a single power play tally, despite 15 opportunities. The power play in those five games lacked clean zone entries, motivation, and creativity. They looked better against the Red Wings, going two-for-four, and it looked like maybe things were on the upswing before the game against the Coyotes. Spoiler alert: they were not. The Capitals’ power play struggled unnecessarily against a weak Arizona penalty kill that was ranked dead last in the league at 44.4% coming into that game, converting on just one of six power play opportunities. They recovered well enough to score one PPG in four chances against the Bolts, but they were thoroughly outworked by Tampa’s PK most of that game and then failed to get anything going in their two chances against the Panthers last night.
All of this brings the Capitals to a power play running at 18.9%, ranked 21st in the league. Is 18.9% bad, per se? No, but here’s the thing: the Capitals should not have a middle-of-the-road power play, especially with Alex Ovechkin on the ice. They had so much confidence on the power play to kick off the season and there have been flashes of that since opening night, but not nearly enough. They are letting themselves get overpowered by both good and bad penalty kills, and until their sense of urgency returns that will not change.
The Capitals’ penalty kill is ranked 23rd in the league at 75.9%, which is not an ideal way to start the season. Washington’s PK finished last season at 84%, fifth-best in the league through all 56 games, so starting this season off so much lower is a bit concerning. Yes, they did lose Zdeno Chara and Brenden Dillon, two of their six most frequent penalty killers last year, this offseason. However, the rest of the core pieces are still there. The sharp decline in performance cannot be explained away solely by the absence of two skaters. The Caps have proven they can have a top tier penalty kill, which is part of what makes the PK’s lackluster performance thus far so frustrating.
A shorthanded silver lining? The Caps have also scored two shorthanded goals so far, from the two players you would least suspect: Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Ovechkin jumped on the ice towards the end of a PK and created a scoring chance, but Kuznetsov has actually been getting consistent time on the penalty kill this season. He is eighth on the team in PK ice time, skating 11:04 when the Caps are a man down. His appearance on the PK during preseason definitely raised some eyebrows, but he seems to be doing well so far.
This pick should come as a surprise to absolutely no one. What can we possibly say about Ovechkin that hasn’t been said before? Not much! This is the best ten-game start of Ovechkin’s entire 17-year career — eight assists and ten goals, which makes him the first player this season to hit double digit goals — and he was named the NHL’s First Star of the Month for October as a result. He might be 36, but Ovi and his 740 career goals are here to remind everyone that age is but a number and that we are truly lucky to get to watch him play hockey.
There was some concern that Nick Jensen would regress some from his strong showing last season with the departure of Zdeno Chara, with whom he thrived. Fear not, folks, because Jensen is off to one heck of a start this year. He looks so confident and comfortable with his game, which translates to his best performance in a Capitals’ sweater so far. Jensen’s two goals already equal his goal total from last season, all while blocking 16 shots and taking a team-high 31 hits. He and Dmitry Orlov appear to compliment each other well, as both of them play a faster but still physical game. All in all, Jensen’s hard work is clearly paying off and he is a big part of the Capitals’ early success this season.
Evgeny Kuznetsov’s name was running rampant through the trade rumor mill this offseason, and after his performance last season it is easy to understand why. He looked unmotivated and undisciplined, and clearly was not playing as well as he was able to. Well, it seems as if Kuzy decided to let the haters be his motivators because oh my is he off to a hot start this season. Kuznetsov is second on the team in points with 13, five of which are goals. He has already broken out the bird celly a few times this season, as well as dished out some killer assists. Additionally, he is playing a better-disciplined game; he is much more deliberate with his actions and only has two penalties. His appearance on the penalty kill is a clear indicator that Laviolette and the rest of the coaching staff trusts him, which in turn hopefully motivates him to keep working hard. Don’t look now, but...2018 Cup run Kuznetsov might be making a return.
The Capitals’ next ten games are as follows:
WSH v PHI — Saturday 11/6, 7pm
WSH v BUF — Monday 11/8, 7pm
WSH @ DET — Thursday 11/11, 7:30pm
WSH @ CBJ — Friday 11/12, 7pm
WSH v PIT — Sunday 11/14, 7pm
WSH @ ANA — Tuesday 11/16, 10pm
WSH @ LAK — Wednesday 11/17, 10:30pm
WSH @ SJS — Saturday 11/20, 10:30pm
WSH @ SEA — Sunday 11/21, 9pm
WSH v MTL — Wednesday 11/24, 7pm