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Capital Vibe Check: Slumping Special Teams

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

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

In their seven games since February 18, the Capitals have gone 5-1-1 and snagged 11 of 14 possible points — only the Minnesota Wild have a better record and more points since then with their 6-0-1 hot streak. The Caps are also on a three-game win streak, tied for their longest such streak of the season. How did the different facets of Washington’s play get them there? Let’s do a Vibe Check and find out.

The Capitals haven’t seen a big dip in offensive production recently, but they haven’t seen a big boom either. Their 23 goals-for is third-best in the league since February 18, and their 3.29 goals per game is eighth-best. Both of those stats have declined slightly since the last vibe check, but not enough to be overly concerned. The more worrisome part of the Caps’ offense in this seven game stretch is their shot generation: they only averaged 27.6 shots per game and that data is a little skewed because while they had games with 35 and 41 shots, they also had games with 21, 22, 23, 24, and 27 shots. They were able to get away with getting fewer shots on net because they faced some struggling teams, but the next seven games will not be as favorable for the Caps and this is something they need to get back on track.

One noticeable positive, however: all 19 skaters who took the ice for the Capitals in the last seven games tallied at least one point and a whopping 14 of them scored at least one goal. Sometimes teams with high star-power can sit back and rely on said stars to fuel their offense, but that is clearly not a problem for the Capitals right now. They have continued to get production from up and down the lineup this season, which is not something every team in the league can say.

The Capitals’ defensive play has continued its upward trend, folks. It sometimes doesn’t seem like it, especially because there have certainly been more noticeable individual mistakes as of late, but as a whole the Caps are pretty solid defensively. In their last seven tilts, the Caps have allowed an average of 26.1 shots per game and have only allowed an opponent to eclipse 30 shots once (Pittsburgh, 2/23). They also only allowed 17 goals, much better than the 29 they allowed in the previous seven game stretch. The Caps continue to be effective in front of their own net as well, limiting opponents’ chances for deflections, tip-ins, and up-close goals nicely.

The Caps’ recent frequent defensive pairings of Dillon-Carlson, Orlov-Schultz, and Chara-Jensen have been moderately successful, particularly the Orlov-Schultz duo. These three pairs are not statistically the best, Chara-Jensen in particular, but they have not had a ton of time playing together yet even though they are 21 games into the season because of injuries and COVID protocol. Will more time together improve things? Hopefully, but it would also be nice to see Laviolette change up the d-pairs to more successful combos (perhaps something that includes a Orlov-Jensen pairing).

The Capitals started three different goalies in their last seven games, which is unusual for most NHL teams and especially unusual for the Caps, who have not started more than two goalies in a season since 2014-15. And not only did three different goalies start games for the Capitals — all three goalies recorded at least one win. Vitek Vanecek posted a 3-1-1 record in his five starts and both Craig Anderson and Ilya Samsonov won their games. The three netminders combined for a .905 SV% and 2.29 GAA which admittedly is not great, but is also not cause for immediate concern.

Yes, you read that right earlier, welcome back Ilya Samsonov! After some time on the COVID protocol list and a four-game rehab stint with the Hershey Bears, the young Russian goalie returned for the Capitals in their most recent game, a 3-2 win over the Devils. He saved 19 of 21 shots and, even though the two goals he did let in were pretty soft, he looked good, especially for it being his first NHL game since January 17. This combined with his solid rehab work in Hershey is definitely encouraging.

The Caps finally tapped Craig Anderson for a start to give Vanecek a rest in the second game of a back-to-back, and Anderson was exactly the goalie the Caps needed him to be. Was he great? His .885 SV% and 3 GA would say no, but he actually looked decent in net. The most important part of his start, though, was the fact that Vanecek finally got to sit out a full game.

Speaking of, Vitek Vanecek seems to have rebounded quite nicely from his early February slump. He posted a .919 SV% and 2.20 GAA through his five starts, much better than the .895 SV% and 3.35 GAA he recorded in the Caps’ previous seven games. His high-danger SV% improved from .733 to .872 and his 5v5 SV% improved from .898 to .956. Vanecek also just looked more comfortable in net during the second half of February, which is hopefully a sign that he handled his slump well mentally, no small feat for a rookie. His rebound control is still worrisome, especially because it does not appear to have improved much since the season began, but the rebound in his overall play is excellent to see.

The Capitals’ power play is certainly leaving something to be desired right now. It is still top-five in the league at 29.1% overall, but their 26.3% success rate over the last seven games is the lowest of their three seven-game stretches. In those seven games, Washington’s man-advantage went 1-1, 0-4, 3-4, 0-2, 1-3, 0-2, and 0-3. That’s five PPGs in 19 chances and four games without a power play tally. And don’t let that third game fool you, that was against the New Jersey Devils and their league-worst penalty kill, against which they went 0-5 in games six and seven. Additionally, unlike the second set of seven games when ten skaters notched power play points, only seven Caps recorded points on the power play this go around. They also allowed two shorthanded goals against, one from the Rangers and one from the Penguins, bringing them to three total on the season.

A glaring problem: their zone entries are a mess. If the Caps can get a faceoff in the offensive zone on the power play, they are much more likely to find success. If they need to get the puck into the offensive zone, though? All bets are off. Their power play zone entries looked good, even great, at the beginning of the season, so the ability is there. They just need to find their rhythm again.

The Capitals’ penalty kill has cooled off a bit through their last seven games, dropping from an 87% kill rate to 77.3% (five PPGAs in 22 attempts). This is about where the PK was sitting at the beginning of the season so on the surface this drop does not raise too many eyebrows, but it is important to note that the Caps’ last seven games have included matchups with some of the worst power plays in the league this season. The Rangers (one game) sit at 14.5%, the Devils (three games) sit at 14.8%, and the Penguins (two games) sit at 15.9% — all three power plays rank in the bottom third of the league. Is this decline in penalty kill efficacy against these sub-par power plays cause for panic? Not yet. This is a small sample size, and the Caps proved earlier in the season that they can turn it around in short time periods. However, it is something to keep an eye on.

Something that might help? Simply take less penalties. Sure, not necessarily in the Capitals’ brand, but it would be nice.

Like his fellow former Penguin, Conor Sheary is more than making his mark as a Capital so far. He has seven points (5G, 2A) on the season, and three of those (2G, 1A) have come in Washington’s last seven games. His CF% through those games was 56.7%, fourth-best on the team, and his season CF% of 55.8% is good for fifth-best among players who have skated in at least five games. Sheary has particularly thrived when facing Pittsburgh and Buffalo, two of his former teams. Coach Laviolette has been so impressed with his recent play that he promoted Sheary to the top line with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov for the Caps’ game against the Penguins on February 25, and he remained there for the next two games. The 5’8” winger might be small, but he is proving to be incredibly effective no matter where he is in the lineup.


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

WSH @ BOS — Wednesday 3/3, 7pm

WSH @ BOS — Friday 3/5, 7pm

WSH @ PHI — Sunday 3/7, 7pm

WSH v NJD — Tuesday 3/9, 7pm

WSH @ PHI — Thursday 3/11, 7pm

WSH @ PHI — Saturday 3/13, 7pm

WSH @ BUF — Monday 3/15, 7pm