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Capital Vibe Check: Back to Full Strength

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The good, the bad, and the ugly of the Capitals’ recent gameplay.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

In their last seven games, the Capitals saw Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Dmitry Orlov return to the lineup from the COVID protocol list. Russian goaltender Ilya Samsonov also came off the COVID list and headed to Hershey for a conditioning stint. The team went 3-0-4 in these seven games, snapping their season-opening point streak on February 1 against the Bruins in their first regulation loss. How have the individual aspects of the Caps’ overall game fared in that stretch? Let’s take a look in the latest Vibe Check.

The Capitals’ offense is still moving at a steady clip. They averaged 3.57 goals per game, which is fifth-best in the league since January 28. They have also maintained their high shot volume, averaging 30.7 shots per game. Their outing in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night was particularly impressive in that regard and set a season high for shots in a game with 42. Additionally, as with the first seven games of the season, the Caps are getting production from every part of the lineup. 20 skaters tallied at least one point during this recent stretch, and 14 of those players scored at least one goal.

There had been some concern that Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov would have a slow return to the lineup after being out for so many games, but that is decidedly not the case. They both jumped right back into the swing of things and helped to continue Washington’s driving offense.

The Capitals’ defensive pairings have been a bit inconsistent this season with Dmitry Orlov on the COVID protocol list and Justin Schultz missing time with a facial injury. However, despite these setbacks, the Caps have been able to maintain a pretty consistent level of play in their own zone. Other skaters, including Jonas Siegenthaler and Trevor van Riemsdyk, have stepped up to plug the gaps and have done well. Is it ideal that the 43-year-old Zdeno Chara is playing top-pair minutes in a condensed season? No, but hopefully playing time will be spread more evenly now that all top-six defensemen are in the lineup.

Speaking of, the current defensive pairs of Chara-Carlson, Dillon-Schultz, and Orlov-Jensen have been particularly successful. All three duos are sitting above 50% xGF, with Orlov-Jensen being the highest at a whopping 65.4%. Theoretically, given more time to play together now that everyone is healthy, these numbers should go up from here.

With Ilya Samsonov on the COVID protocol list and then sent to Hershey for conditioning before returning to the lineup, the Capitals’ crease as of late has been almost entirely the Vitek Vanecek Show. However, this episode of the show was much more unpredictable than the first one. Vanecek got off to a great start this season, such a great start that he was named the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for January. The shine from that hot start seems to have dulled lately, though. Vanecek has looked shaky and much more like the young, inexperienced netminder most people thought he would be coming into this season.

Vanecek has posted a .895 SV% with a 3.35 GAA through his last seven games, a pretty big drop from his .918 SV% and 2.70 GAA in his first seven. His high-danger SV% has also plummeted, going from .810 to .733 on almost exactly the same number of high-danger shots against. Vanecek’s biggest issue right now is rebound control — he is giving opponents way too many chances on them. When Cody Ceci is intentionally playing the puck off the pads for a prime rebound opportunity, it’s time to address the problem. Vanecek did have a better game on Tuesday though, and sometimes all it takes is one win to pull a goalie out of their funk, so fingers crossed.

A bit of an update on Ilya Samsonov: his rehab stint in Hershey has so far included two games, Sunday’s OT loss to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and Wednesday night’s 2-1 win over the Binghamton Devils. Samsonov had a rough first game back off the COVID list, but he appeared to bounce back nicely last night and was even awarded Second Star of the Game for his 22-save effort. The Capitals have a back-to-back against the Rangers and Devils this weekend, so look for that as a prime opportunity for Samsonov to return to the Caps’ crease.

Washington’s man-advantage still looks solid, despite going four games without power play wizard Alex Ovechkin. Their season total success rate has dropped a bit to 30.7%, still fourth-best in the league, but their overall play has actually improved. They look much more organized, especially in the most recent couple of games. However, they are not finding the back of the net nearly as much as they would like. In the last seven games, the power play has gone 2-3, 1-1, 1-4, 0-4, 1-4, 1-4, and 0-5 for six PPGs in 22 opportunities, a 27.3% success rate. However, ten different skaters tallied power play points on those six goals, including some unexpected guys like Richard Panik (1G) and Justin Schultz (2A). Additionally, unlike in the first seven games of the season, the Caps did not allow a shorthanded goal. Progress!

The Capitals’ penalty kill is clicking, folks. After recording a pretty solid success rate of 76% through their first seven games, the Caps’ PK operated at an 87% success rate in the next seven, killing off 20 of 23 penalties. That brings their season average to 81.3%, good for 13th-best in the league. The penalty kill also held opponents to just 24 shots, compared to the 40 they allowed through the first seven games. They are doing a particularly good job at limiting shots from the slot and forcing opposing power play units further from the net.

As we said in the last Vibe Check, a team’s best penalty killer needs to be their goalie. In his first five games of the season, Vanecek struggled when the Caps were in the box and posted a .844 SV% on 32 shots. In his last seven games, however, Vanecek appears to have improved a bit in this regard. He faced less shots, 23 compared to 32, but recorded a .870 SV% on the penalty kill. Shoutout to the skaters on the Caps’ PK units for limiting shots so Vanecek can better find his footing.

Nicklas Backstrom is, once again, having a quietly killer start to the season. In the Caps’ last seven games, Backstrom has 11 points (3G, 8A) and a shooting percentage of 27.3% while averaging 19:46 in ice time per game. He also recorded two three-point outings during that stretch and is currently riding a four-game point streak. Backstrom is also an important leader in the locker room, which was particularly vital while the Caps’ captain was on the COVID list and then when the team was on their four-game losing streak. The only place in which Backstrom has not found consistent success is the faceoff dot, which is a problem across the board for Washington centers. He won 62.1% of his faceoffs through these seven games, but had a few rough single-game performances including 12.5%, 27.3%, 28.6%, and 33.3% (twice). That aside, Backstrom is on pace for yet another solid season.

Alex Ovechkin missed the first of the Caps’ most recent seven games, but when he came back to the lineup he made sure everyone knew it. He recorded one goal and one assist in his first game back, including the overtime game-winning goal just 28 seconds into extra time. In his last six games, Ovi has eight points (4G, 4A) and a few highlight reel plays to add to his lengthy resume. The absolute best of them came in his four-point performance (2G, 2A) against the Flyers on Super Bowl Sunday when he danced around Philippe Myers and made the defenseman look, for lack of a better word, silly, to set Tom Wilson up for a goal. But don’t take our word for it, watch the replay yourself:

The Great 8 also averaged 22:07 of ice time per game, which is pretty impressive for a 35-year-old skater. Then again, the hockey world should expect nothing less at this point. If there was any worry that Ovechkin might not be in top form coming off the COVID protocol list, he certainly did his best to quell those fears.

Here’s what the next seven games look like for the Capitals, if the current schedule stands:

WSH v BUF — Thursday 2/18, 7pm

WSH v NYR — Saturday 2/20, 12:30pm

WSH v NJD — Sunday 2/21, 7pm

WSH v PIT — Tuesday 2/23, 7pm

WSH v PIT — Thursday 2/25, 7pm

WSH @ NJD — Saturday 2/27, 1pm

WSH @ NJD — Sunday 2/28, 3pm