Photo: Geoff Burke/Getty Images
The 2019-20 NHL season is set to resume later this week when the Stanley Cup Qualifiers begin. The Washington Capitals will be facing the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Philadelphia Flyers in a round-robin tournament with a chance to move into first place in the Eastern Conference for the Stanley Cup Playoffs but they can also drop to fourth. NoVa Caps looks at five burning questions facing the Capitals as they enter the tournament in pursuit of their second Stanley Cup in three seasons.
1. Which Evgeny Kuznetsov Will Show Up?
The 28-year-old recorded 19 goals and 46 points in his first 52 games of the season before suffering a lower-body injury. After missing three games, Kuznetsov recorded six assists in the final 10 games before the pause.
But Kuznetsov’s decline goes back much further than this season. He posted 67 goals and 198 points over 194 regular-season and Stanley Cup Playoff games combined from December 7, 2016, to December 2, 2018 (an average of 1.02 points-per-game), but he has only 34 goals and 106 points in 126 regular-season and Stanley Cup Playoff games since (0.84 points-per-game). In seven playoff games last year against the Carolina Hurricanes, Kuznetsov had 1 goal, 6 points, and a -1 rating.
The Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018 because Kuznetsov was at his highest level as he led the tournament with 20 assists and 32 points in 24 games. He is arguably the most important player for the Capitals this summer. If he is hot and motivated, the Capitals will take a serious run at their second Cup. If not, the team will be in for another short run.
2. Will The Defense Return To Its Early Season Form?
After allowing an average of only 2.76 goals-per-game (eighth) and 30.6 shots-against per game (tied with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins for eighth) in their first 37 games of the season, the Capitals allowed an average of 3.44 goals-per-game the rest of the way, the most of any team resuming play. Though, their average of 29.7 shots-against per game during that span ranked seventh. They also allowed at least three goals in 15 of their 19 games after the NHL All-Star Break, giving up an average of 3.58 goals-per-game (the most in the NHL).
The team acquired Brenden Dillon from the San Jose Sharks on February 18 in an effort to help clean up the defensive play but they allowed an average of 3.40 goals-per-game after his arrival, tied with the Buffalo Sabres for the eighth-most in the NHL. The Capitals must be stingier defensively if they want to make a long run.
The Capitals will have new defensive pairings to start the round-robin with Michal Kempny getting reunited with Norris Trophy candidate John Carlson, Dillon pairing with Dmitry Orlov, and Jonas Siegenthaler playing with Nick Jensen. Radko Gudas and Martin Fehervary could also rotate into the lineup. Gudas had a strong start to the season but faded later in the season, and Fehervary shined when called up from the AHL’s Hershey Bears in February.
3. Will The Power-Play Live Up To Its Potential?
The Capitals ranked 28th (yes, 28th!!!) in the NHL with a 15.6% power-play efficiency from December 8 onward after the unit clicked at a 24.5% rate, fifth in the NHL, in their first 31 games of the season.
Head coach Todd Reirden tried to change the chemistry by replacing Kuznetsov on the first unit with forward Jakub Vrana and putting Kuznetsov on the second unit, but they ranked 24th with a 16.7% power-play efficiency after the change was made.
During their run to the Stanley Cup, the Capitals’ power-play clicked at a 29.3% rate, first in the NHL, but it has been on the decline the past two seasons. That is frustrating considering they have the league’s best goal-scorer, two excellent play-making centers, a solid net-front player in T.J. Oshie, and the best offensive defenseman in the NHL. The power-play will have to be much better than it was at the time of the pause for the Capitals to have success.
4. Will Braden Holtby Keep Up His Strong Play?
The 30-year-old had the worst season of his NHL career in 2019-20, finishing with a career-low .897 save percentage and a career-high 3.11 goals-against average. His starting job appeared to be in jeopardy heading into the All-Star Break but Holtby was much better after. He may have posted an .898 save percentage and a 3.15 goals-against average after the break, but the Capitals were one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL after the All-Star Break.
Despite Holtby’s strong finish, he had an inconsistent season as he went 1-5-0 with an .830 save percentage and a 4.53 goals-against average in his final seven games before the All-Star Break after starting the season 1-1-2 with an .846 save percentage and a 4.27 goals-against average in his first five games. He has been known to as a slow starter out of the gate throughout his NHL career, which could concern Capitals fans as the situation is very much like going into a new season.
Holtby started 14 of the Capitals’ final 19 games of the season, showing that the team sees him as the No. 1 goalie, and he rewarded them. Ilya Samsonov’s injury that will keep him out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs makes Holtby the clear cut No. 1. The Capitals need Holtby to be at the top of his game entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
5. What Can We Expect From Alex Ovechkin?
The 34-year-old captain posted 22 goals in his final 22 games of the season and eight in his last 10 to tie Bruins forward David Pastrnak for the NHL lead in goals (48) after trailing him by nine goals on January 12. He arguably had his best season since 2014-15, when he was nominated for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP.
During the past two seasons, Ovechkin recorded 19 goals and 38 points in 31 Stanley Cup Playoff games and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the tournament in 2018, when he led the league with 15 goals.
Ovechkin continues to defy Father Time and shows no sign of slowing down, but with all momentum gained before the pause gone, what can we expect from the Great Eight? He was serious about training and motivated to add to his legacy during the time off. This should be fascinating to see.
By Harrison Brown