Photo: Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images
The Capitals are back home after a West Coast road swing, and they should feel good about it. Road trips are tough, but there’s always an extra challenge when you travel over 4,000 miles to play 4 games. Earning 6 out of the possible 8 points is fair proof that we have another dominant group of guys ready to command the league once again. Here are some positive points Capitals fans can come away with.
Early and Out Of the Way
Although the Capitals will travel westward again in March to face the Sharks, Kings, and Ducks, it is safe to say that the club has tackled a grueling trip in fine fashion. After a poor showing in Edmonton, a team they seemed to underestimate, the Capitals showed some resilience following the ugly 4-1 defeat. Chemistry and team building is also a great part of extended road trips, so the combination of comradery and tenacity is a big plus early in the season. With a campaign now more condensed due to a scheduled bye week (Feb 12-17), it’s big to have played these games in October.
With the same 82 scheduled games now being played in fewer days, backup goaltending will become a greater factor for teams across the league. Let us not overlook the two starts Philipp Grubauer has given the Capitals this season. A shutout at home, and a great showing in Vancouver gives Capitals’ faithful reason to be optimistic about having solid goaltending in more frequent back-to-back situations. Holts posted a 43 save gem in Winnipeg, providing the backstop support for a team that’s surely reeling and ready to head home. The season is extremely young, but confident netminders backing an extremely talented squad is a recipe for success. It also doesn’t hurt that the guru of goaltending is coaching the men between the pipes. Thank you Mitch Korn.
Getting the kinks out of the power play is something that fans could have caught a glimpse of over the past few games. Early on, the PP units seemed a bit unorganized. Entries were fair at best, zone time wasn’t great, and shot attempts weren’t making it to the net. Errant passes, and exceedingly fancy plays were resulting in 200 foot recoveries, which destroy chances for scoring. Now however, passes seem more crisp and puck possession has been better, resulting in more pucks hitting twine. A team with this skill level should have no problem communicating and shoring up a deadly pair of power play units. The sooner the better in fact, for special teams have proven to win hockey games in a higher scoring NHL. A penalty kill that struggled early has obviously made some adjustments, posting impressive percentages throughout, especially blanking the Jets’ man advantage Tuesday night.
Last year, the Caps were arguably the best third period team in the league. Their ability to suffocate teams in the neutral zone, and playing safe in their own zone created a great opportunity to rack up points in the standings. With that said, the sense of urgency the Caps have with early leads seems to be a little lackadaisical. In Florida, the Capitals won, but allowed the Panthers to tie the game after being up by two goals. In the ensuing game, the Rangers capitalized and erased another early lead, eventually topping the Caps 4-2. Now, it’s inevitable to give up a lead, but a focus on eliminating sloppy play and avoiding giveaways has proven to be successful. In Vancouver and Calgary, the team gained early leads and held them for the remainder of the game, which is encouraging. They had a little bit of a scare in Winnipeg, likely due to late game (and trip) fatigue but low and behold, Beags did what he does best. He fought and clawed his way to the puck, sealing a winning fate with a goal in the final minute of the game. For over two-thirds of the game, the Caps kept the streaking Jets to the exterior of the ice, eliminating quality shot angles, making save attempts much easier for Braden Holtby. In a league where speed wins more often than not, they seemed to shut a fast team down effectively. Fans should look forward to a consecutive match-up with the Jets, as it should be a great game of hockey. If the team can manage to emulate their play in the latter stages of games last year, they will be incredibly tough to beat.
Some Individual Spotlights Following the Roadie
Marcus Johansson has been a bright standout after signing a new 3 year, $13.75 million contract. Through eight games, Mojo has tallied 6 goals and 5 assists, with 11 team leading points. Those six goals are just one under the league lead, and his point totals are tied for second in the NHL. Granted, the season is very young, but it’s satisfying to see Marcus’ scoring abilities coming into play. He seems to be “toughening up” and is winning more puck battles along the boards, creating more offensive zone time and initiating scoring opportunities more often. His presence in front of the net is strong, and his shooting percentage is also above 30%, one of the highest in the league right now. His role in the new line system Trotz is rolling seems to be working well for him as well, almost forcing him to shoot the puck more often.
Bang for the buck! Switching offensive systems is never an easy adjustment, but it seems that Brett Connolly is finding his place with the Capitals nicely. Although there haven’t been any “reel worthy” highlights (and there may never be any), Connolly has been a nuisance for other teams. He creates turnovers, forechecks well, and always seems to be in good defensive position. At a salary of under a million dollars, the Capitals could have their hands on a great steal. Watch him closely, as he’s a big, sturdy depth forward who could prove a ton of worth in a season long run, especially on an “energy line” with Jay Beagle and rookie Zach Sanford. For example, watch the replay of the Caps first goal late in the opening frame in Winnipeg. Connolly creates that opportunity with an aggressive check, breaking possession, leading to a goal.
Caps fans could be witnessing a high scoring defensive player develop with Nate Schmidt. Although he lacks some size and experience, his speed could be a contributing factor to a team that may lack that throughout the defensive corps. His ability to enter a zone and create strong possession in opposing teams’ sectors is refreshing. With John Carlson’s unusually slow start, let’s hope that he continues to work with the coaching staff on ways to employ his areas of skill, as well as improving his offensive vision as well.
Overall, it is still way too early to make any assumptions of a seasonal outcome for the Capitals, but after a tough road trip that involved a ton of travel, a 4 point back-to-back, and hopefully a lot of team building, there are several things to be positive about.
By Brennan Reidy