The Washington Capitals will open the 2020-21 season with two games at the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday and Friday night. The teams split two regular-season meetings last season, including a 3-2 shootout win by the Sabres in Western New York on March 9, the final game each team played before the season was paused due to COVID-19. Action from First Niagra Center in Buffalo can be seen on NBC Sports Washington beginning at 7 PM ET both nights.
After going 2-5-1 in the Eastern Conference bubble in August, the Capitals made plenty of changes as they replaced head coach Todd Reirden with Peter Laviolette, who will make his debut behind the Capitals’ bench on Thursday. They also added defensemen Justin Schultz, Zdeno Chara, and Trevor Van Riemsdyk after their average of 3.44 goals-against per game from December 22 on was the highest among the 24 teams that participated in the NHL’s return-to-play format. The team also signed forward Conor Sheary, who was traded by the Sabres to the Pittsburgh Penguins on February 24.
The Capitals won the Metropolitan Division for the fifth consecutive year by one point last season but went 19-16-3 in their final 38 games, including 7-9-3 in their last 19, after starting the season with a league-best 26-6-5 record.
The team saw goaltender Braden Holtby, defenseman Radko Gudas, forward Ilya Kovalchuk and forward Travis Boyd leave in free agency over the offseason. Defenseman Michal Kempny will miss most, if not all of the 2020-21 season while recovering from Achilles surgery that took place in October. The injury is expected to keep him out for six-to-eight months.
Captain Alex Ovechkin’s 48 goals last season were tied with Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak for the NHL lead. Defenseman John Carlson’s 60 assists were fourth in the NHL while his 75 points were tied for 12th. Forwards T.J. Oshie (26 – tied for 29th) and Jakub Vrana (25 – tied for 35th) were also among the top-35 goal scorers in the league last season.
The Capitals’ average of 3.42 goals-per-game last season only trailed the defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning, but their average of 3.07 goals-against per game was 18th. Their 19.4% power-play efficiency was 17th but their 82.6% penalty-killing rate was sixth. The Capitals averaged 32 shots-per-game (11th) and 30.2 shots-against per game (ninth).
The Capitals will open the season on a four-game road trip. After back-to-back games in Buffalo, they will travel to Western Pennsylvania for back-to-back games at the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Four of the team’s first six games will be against the Sabres as they will visit Capital One Arena on Friday, January 22, and Sunday, January 24. The Capitals were a league-best 23-10-3 away from home last season.
After roaring out to a 9-2-2 start, the Sabres went 21-29-6, better than only the league-worst Detroit Red Wings (13-41-4) over that span. They ended the season with a .493 points percentage and just three points behind the Montreal Canadiens for the final spot in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers and the Canadiens played two more games than the Sabres did. The Sabres head into this season with the longest Stanley Cup Playoff drought in the NHL having not made it in nine consecutive seasons.
The Sabres were one of the most active NHL teams during the offseason, which began by firing GM Jason Botterill and replacing him with Kevyn Adams. They brought in forwards Taylor Hall, Eric Staal, Jack Quinn, Cody Eakin, Tobias Rieder, and Riley Sheahan in addition to defensemen Matt Irwin and Brandon Davidson. They parted ways with forwards Marcus Johansson, Jimmy Vesey, Dominik Kahun, and Wayne Simmonds.
The team’s average of 2.80 goals-per-game ranked 21st in the NHL last season while their average of 3.12 goals-against per game was 22nd. The Sabres’ 18.9% power-play efficiency was 20th but their 74.6% penalty-killing rate was only 0.3% higher than the Red Wings. The Sabres averaged 29.3 shots-per-game, only ahead of the Red Wings, and 31.1 shots-against per game, tied with the Canadiens for 13th.
Captain Jack Eichel led the team in goals (36), assists (42), and points (78) in 68 games last season, which tied the Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau for 11th in the NHL. Hall recorded 36 assists and 52 points in 65 games with the New Jersey Devils and Arizona Coyotes last season and forward Sam Reinhart posted 22 goals in 69 games for the Sabres.
After hosting the Capitals on back-to-back nights, the Sabres will kick-off a four-game road trip with back-to-back games at the Philadelphia Flyers before coming to Washington next weekend. The Sabres’ 20-11-4 home record last season was the seventh-best in the Eastern Conference.
Capitals – Ilya Samsonov, 23, (16-6-2, .913 save percentage, 2.55 goals-against average, one shutout in 2019-20) and Vitek Vanecek, 25 (19-10-2 with a .917 save percentage, a 2.26 goals-against average, and two shutouts with the AHL’s Hershey Bears in 2019-20) were designated as the teams two netminders for the start of the season.
Ilya Samsonov is likely to get the start.
Sabres – Linus Ullmark (17-14-3, .915 save percentage, 2.69 goals-against average, one shutout in 2019-20) and Carter Hutton (12-14-4, .898 save percentage, 3.14 goals-against average, two shutouts) will be the Sabres netminder tandem to start the season.
Ullmark, 27, is 1-2-0 has a .895 save percentage and a 3.27 goals-against average in three career games vs. Capitals; Hutton, 35, is 3-3-2 with an .888 save percentage and a 3.19 goals-against average in nine career games vs. Capitals.
- Lars Eller is entering his fifth season with the Washington Capitals after recording a career-high 39 points last season (16g, 23a).
- Eller led the Capitals during the 2019-20 campaign with a 55.8 shot attempt percentage at five-on-five (908 shot attempts for, 717 against), which was not only a personal career high, but it was also the third-highest percentage by a Capital since the NHL began recording the data in 2009-10.
- Since joining Washington in the 2016-17 season, Eller’s 138 points (59g, 79a) are tied for sixth on the Capitals.
By Harrison Brown