Photo: Washington Capitals
The biggest (albeit early) storyline of the Washington Capitals’ 2023-24 season so far is the club’s inability to score goals, a struggle that was on full display when the team fell to the Montreal Canadiens back on Saturday.
It is hard to fathom how a team, with arguably the greatest pure goal scorer of this generation in Alex Ovechkin (second all-time), is struggling to put the puck in the net. As the team has struggled, so too has their captain.
The former first overall pick has yet to score a goal and has only two assists. Prior to his five shots on goal in Washington’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Habs, the 38-year-old did not register a shot on goal in two straight games.
“I think this was our best game all year,” Ovechkin said on Monday. “Obviously, we lost but the chances we generated for all those three periods; it was good.”
Other big-name players for the Capitals, such as Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson, have yet to put the puck in the back of the net or contribute substantially offensively.
“We still got a long way to go. We’re still dialing in some details inside of our game that have to get way, way more consistent,” admitted Head Coach Spencer Carbery, who is in his first year behind an NHL bench, “There were some positive steps, no question, but we still got a lot of work to do.”
“[I have] a lot of built relationships over there, but I’m sure once the puck drops it’s business … It’s an important time in our season to try to get some momentum.”
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) October 23, 2023
Washington will return home to face the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday; a Maple Leafs team that can score goals at bay (led by superstar sniper Auston Matthews) and notching scoring 3.60 goals per game, currently 10th in the NHL. Matthews is second in the league with six goals after opening the regular season with back-to-back hat tricks.
The Leafs’ other star-studded weaponry includes the likes of Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares and rookie forward Matthew Knies. Nylander currently leads the Leafs with nine points (four goals, five assists) along with Tavares.
In order to shut down a high-powered artillery, the Capitals have to play with a physical edge and be tight defensively. The club has a total of 60 hits on the season, which is the third-least in the NHL.
Against Montreal, Washington had 14 hits. Wilson, Rasmus Sandin and Martin Fehervary each had a team-leading three which led the team. More physicality and muscle from big players like 6’6″, 225 lb Aliaksei Protas, or a 6’5″, 234 lb Anthony Mantha would go a long way toward keeping Toronto at bay. Wilson, Oshie, Kuznetsov and Beck Malenstyn were the only forwards that registered a hit against the Habs.
The Leafs, meanwhile, are an imposing physical club, Toronto is fifth in the league with 111 hits and bolster one of the toughest players in the NHL: Ryan Reaves.
The Caps are not going to beat Toronto with their speed, or lack thereof, but rather running them out of the building and establishing a strong checking game right from the drop of the puck.
Perhaps the most critical thing for Carbery’s team to do against Matthews and company is to stay disciplined. The Capitals picked up 12 penalty minutes against Montreal and took five penalties in the third period alone. The Maple Leafs had the NHL’s second-best power play in the league last year (which was run by Carbery himself), and is currently sitting at 29.4%, sixth in the NHL. Washington’s penalty kill has been on and off, but it went 5-for-6 against Montreal. It is currently 22nd overall at 73.7%.
Puck drop is slated for 6 PM ET at Capital One Arena and broadcast on ESPN and ESPN+
By Jacob Cheris