The Washington Capitals are officially halfway through this truncated NHL season at the 28-game mark. In their first seven games in the month of March, the Capitals have gone 6-1-0 and grabbed 12 of 14 possible points. They played just one of those games at home, an overtime win over the New Jersey Devils, bringing their record away from Capital One Arena to an impressive 10-3-2 this season. The Caps also saw the Philadelphia Flyers three times and beat the Philadelphia Flyers three times. They ended the seven game stretch on a five-game winning streak, their longest such streak of the season so far. How did they get there? Let’s find out with a vibe check.
The Capitals are still producing offense at a steady rate, something that has not changed much this season. The team scored 26 goals in their last seven games, fifth-best in the league since March 3, and averaged 3.71 goals per game; both of those numbers are slight upticks from the last vibe check. Their shots-per-game has stayed relatively constant at 27.4, but they only reached the 30-shot mark three times in seven games. Not great, but not cause for panic (yet).
17 of the 21 skaters who took the ice for the Caps in the last seven games recorded at least one point, and 15 of those 17 scored at least one goal. Alex Ovechkin (4G) and Nicklas Backstrom (5A) led the way offensively, and Jakub Vrana and Nic Dowd each had two game-winning goals. Additionally, Ilya Samsonov recorded his first NHL point with a primary assist on March 11.
The Capitals’ defensive play isn’t necessarily struggling, but they aren’t making games easy for themselves either. The Caps allowed an average of 28.6 shots per game, a slight increase from the 26.1 SA/G in the previous seven game stretch. There were three games in particular where the shot differential was noticeably concerning: 27-37 on March 7, 22-33 on March 11, and 23-32 on March 13, all against the Flyers. While they won all three of those games, they might not always get bailed out by impressive goaltending. The Caps also, in case you missed it, have had issues holding a lead, and their goals-against by period is perfect evidence of that: three in the first period, six in the second, and nine in the third. Half of the goals that Washington allowed through their last seven games came in the third period — that’s not good.
The most consistent defensive pair continues to be Orlov-Schultz, and they are the only duo who managed a CF% above 50 in the last seven games. Laviolette has made it clear that he, and the team, are comfortable with the defensive pairs he has been rolling as of late. However, might it be time to shake things up and see what a player like Jonas Siegenthaler or Trevor van Riemsdyk can bring to the table? This upcoming stretch of games might be the time to try things out.
Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek split the last seven games pretty evenly — Vanecek started four and Samsonov started three, and they both recorded three wins. They both appeared in the 5-1 loss to Boston on March 5, Samsonov entering in relief of Vanecek after the Czech rookie allowed four goals. Other than that stinker of a game, however, both goalies played three excellent games each. They combined for a .910 SV% and 2.57 GAA through seven games, relatively on par with the previous stretch of seven games (.905 SV%, 2.29 GAA).
Vitek Vanecek’s .901 SV% and 2.44 GAA are a slight drop from our last vibe check, but not enough to cause concern. The most notable part of March so far for Vanecek is much more important — his first career shutout! Yes it was against the Buffalo Sabres and yes he only had to make 23 saves, but an NHL shutout is an NHL shutout. Plus, 14 of those saves came in the third period and some of them were grade-A saves. This shutout also came two months to the day after he got his first NHL win in Buffalo.
Ilya Samsonov appears to have regained his spot as the number one netminder in Washington, if the goalie scheduling for this Buffalo Sabres/New York Islanders back-to-back is anything to go by. He has rebounded nicely from his stint on the COVID protocol list, winning all four of his starts since his return. Through his last four appearances, Samsonov has posted a .917 SV% and 2.64 GAA with nine goals on 109 shots-against. His high-danger SV% in those four games finished at .909, much better than Vanecek’s .840 HDSV%, and he had a .935 SV% at 5v5. He has also seemed increasingly comfortable in the blue paint, a very positive sign. It looks like all systems go for Sammy, and it’s coming at an excellent point in the season.
The Capitals’ power play is still slipping, and it isn’t pretty. Through their last seven games, Washington has only converted on two of their 14 power play opportunities, a 14.3% success rate. This stretch drops their season average from 29.1% (through February) to 26.1%. The PP went 0-2, 0-3, 0-1, 1-2, 0-2, 1-2, and 0-2, only scoring one PPG each against the Devils and Flyers. The numbers get even more dismal when home versus road games are taken into account: the Caps went 1-2 on the PP at home (50%) but 1-12 on the PP on the road (8.3%). The Caps’ road power play is fourth-worst in the league this season at 10.5%, converting on just four of 33 opportunities. It’s been bad all season, and it’s only getting worse. Is it time to shake things up? All signs point to, “Yes, please, try anything.”
The Capitals penalty kill has seen a significant upswing over the last seven games, going from 77.3% to an excellent 88.2%. They were noticeably struggling in the previous seven game stretch, but they proved once again that they can turn their PK around and right the sinking ship. They allowed just two power play goals-against through 17 times shorthanded, and they were missing a big penalty killer in Tom Wilson for five of these last seven games. Three of those five games were against the Flyers, whose power play was operating at a 29.7% success rate during the same seven game stretch. This brings their PK to 81.6% on the season, ranked 11th in the league. Looking ahead, they should be able to keep the strong penalty kill trend going while facing the Islanders, Rangers, and Devils, whose PPs sit at 19.8%, 14.1%, and 12.5% respectively.
Something that probably helped: they took less penalties. Yes, the Caps still take too many irresponsible penalties, but 17 times shorthanded during these seven games is a marked improvement from 22 times in the previous seven.
With Tom Wilson out of the lineup serving his seven-game suspension, Daniel Sprong got the chance for some consistent ice time off the taxi squad and he is taking full advantage. The winger has four points (3G, 1A) through Washington’s last five games and he is currently riding a four-game point streak. Sprong is now also ranked third in the entire league in goals/60 minutes at 5v5 with 2.21. He is doing his best to make it hard for Coach Laviolette to pull him from the lineup when Tom Wilson returns, and so far his case is pretty compelling.
Nick Jensen is...Good™? Maybe, or perhaps it is the combination of his skill set and his deployment in Laviolette’s system (more on that here). Either way, Jensen is on quite a hot streak right now. In the Capitals’ last seven games, Jensen is tied for the team lead in points with six (2G, 4A). He scored his first goal in 109 games as a Capital, and his first goal in 166 games overall, and scored another one three games later for good measure. While he had handled that long goal drought with grace, it sure has been fun to watch an offensively-confident Nick Jensen in recent games. Jensen also always makes sure to give it his all whenever he takes the ice, no matter the score or situation. Take last night’s game against Buffalo for example — the Caps, up 6-0, were on the penalty kill with six minutes left in the third, and Jensen was out on the PK skating just as hard as he would have in a tied game with two minutes to go. Not all hockey players do this and not all Caps players do this, but Jensen does.
Here’s what the next seven games look like for the Capitals, if the current schedule holds:
WSH v NYI — Tuesday 3/16, 7pm
WSH v NYR — Friday 3/19, 7pm
WSH v NYR — Saturday 3/20, 7pm
WSH v NJD — Thursday 3/25, 7pm
WSH v NJD — Friday 3/26, 7pm
WSH v NYR — Sunday 3/28, 12pm
WSH @ NYR — Tuesday 3/30, 7pm