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Capitals’ Veterans Stepping Up

The Caps are on a nice run these days, and it has been fueled largely by unsung veterans.

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Since the night before Thanksgiving, when the Caps spotted the Philadelphia Flyers the first goal, only to come back and win in overtime, Washington is 10-3-1. On Tuesday morning, no team in the league earned more points over that period than the Caps’ 21 points, and they are tied for fifth in points percentage (.750, with the Boston Bruins). They are a top-ten scoring team over that stretch (3.50 goals per game, tied for tenth in scoring offense) and a top-ten scoring defense (2.29 goals allowed per game/fifth in scoring defense).

But what sets this 14-game stretch apart from the 7-10-3 record that preceded it is the way that the guys who do not get the attention have stepped up.

Take, for example, the recent game-winning goals. Ten game-winning goals, two of them in overtime, scored by seven different players. You would expect players such as Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, and Dylan Strome – top-six scoring forwards – to be on that list, and they are. Ovechkin has a pair, Oshie and Strome have one each.

But then there are the “secondary scorers”, like Marcus Johansson, who has two of those GWGs earlier this month. The first was a power-play goal against his former team, Seattle, on December 9:

The Caps went on to get empty net goals in the third period from Lars Eller and Ovechkin in a 4-1 win.

Two nights later in Winnipeg against the Jets, Johansson took off on a shorthanded breakaway that Josh Morissey could only defend by hooking Johansson, leading to a penalty shot that Johansson converted for what would be the game-winner in an eventual 5-2 win:

Then there’s last night’s hero, Nic Dowd, also with a pair of game-winning goals in this 14-game stretch (both on the road). The first came in Edmonton against the Oilers on December 5, when Dowd breaking the back-and-forth pattern to pull the Caps ahead - thanks to an excellent play by another unsung hero, Aliaksei Protas:

The second of his game-winners may have been lost in the shuffle of a historic night for Alex Ovechkin, but it was Dowd giving the Caps a two-goal lead and stopping any momentum the Blackhawks might have had after they had made it 3-2:

Johansson and Dowd would constitute secondary scoring, and it’s not THAT unusual to see them chip in on offense. A less likely hero on this game-winning list, however, is Erik Gustafsson, who went into Saturday’s game against the Leafs without a goal this season, and just 10 goals over the last three seasons (after having potted 17 with Chicago back in 2018-19). That drought would end with his first of the year, and as a Cap, when he put the Caps up 1-0 midway through the first period against Toronto.

And he wasn’t done, picking up two more to help propel the Caps to a 5-2 win and scoring his first-career hat trick - and just the third by a defenseman in Caps history:

The last of this group of unsung game-winning goal-scorers joined the club last night against the Red Wings. With all eyes on Ovechkin to see if he would tie and pass Gordie Howe for second place all-time in goals in the NHL, it was Dowd and Gustafsson providing the offense in regulation, erasing 2-0 and 3-2 leads by Detroit before the team headed to overtime. In the final minute of that extra frame, there were Dowd and Johansson setting up Dmitry Orlov for the one-timer that would send the Caps to their tenth win in their last 14 games and within a tie-breaker of a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference standings on Tuesday morning.

Looking at the contributions since November 23 for the Caps, one is struck by how many players, whether they had game-winning goals or not – have found themselves posting points on a regular basis.

  • Trevor van Riemsdyk did not have a game-winning goal in this 14-game stretch, but he has three goals in those 14 games, giving him four for the season and just one off his career high of five in 2016-17 with Chicago.
  • Garnet Hathaway, who has had his own frustrations finding the back of the net this season, is 1-3-4 over these 14 games and has a plus-7 rating.
  • Conor Sheary is 3-6-9 over this stretch and has reached the 10-goal mark for the season in just 34 games.
  • Anthony Mantha is 3-6-9 as well and has a plus-6 rating.
  • Nicolas Aube-Kubel has four assists in four games played.
  • Sonny Milano, who has provided a real spark for this team since his arrival in the lineup on November 5, is 1-9-10 in the team’s last 13 games.

Last season, rookies stepped up to keep the Caps going early in the season. This season, it is a group of unsung vets who have stepped up in the absence of injured players to drag the Caps out of a poor start and put them back in the playoff race heading into the new year.