Though the NHL season is only 15 games into the season, the Washington Capitals were put to a big test over the weekend to show the hockey world what they were truly capable of.
The Capitals (7-4-2) were scheduled to play two Metropolitan Division rivals on consecutive nights, and on the road: The New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders. Two teams that are on complete opposite ends of the hockey world when it comes to style of play.
The Devils are a high-octane, speed-based team with a plethora of offensive firepower, while the Islanders are a stingy defensive squad that suffocates the opposition. They had an established identity, and the Caps were still trying to find theirs.
However, Washington won both games because of a commitment to playing a gritty style of hockey and having a next man-up mentality that has yet to be unlocked through the first 11 games of the season.
Heading into New Jersey, the Capitals were going to be without Trevor van Riemsdyk, who is day-to-day with a lower-body injury, and Anthony Mantha, who took a puck to the face against the Florida Panthers.
This forced Capitals head coach Spencer Carbery to tinker with his line combinations, and he ultimately went with a trio composed of Beck Malenstyn, Nic Dowd and Nicolas Aube-Kubel. They combined for six points (three goals, three assists) over the weekend and gave the Caps life.
“That’s where I felt like tonight we get the first time this year we had sort of our natural, quote-on-quote fourth line with [Malenstyn], real identity, Aube-Kubel and [Dowd] and quite frankly the way that potentially we saw it in a lot of different scenarios from the summer of what our fourth line would look like,” Carbery said after the win against New Jersey.
Meanwhile, the Caps were hit with another wrinkle against the Devils. Martin Fehervary suffered a lower-body injury in the second period. He did not return for the rest of the game and Washington was playing with five defensemen in what was eventually a one goal game. But the Capitals hunkered down and did not let the snowball effect take over and defeated the Devils 4-2.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us to see what we have for the future. If somebody goes out, somebody get hurt or something happens, we can put another guy in and they gonna play solid,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said after Saturday’s win on Long Island.
Moving onto New York, Carbery talked about how he wanted his team to do a better job at getting traffic in front of the opposition goaltenders and forcing tip plays and getting after rebounds. The last time the Caps faced the Islanders, they were blanked 3-0 on home ice and the first goal the Isles scored in that game, was because of net-front traffic. The Caps had not scored a goal in similar fashion prior to Saturday.
Dowd’s game-winning tally in the second period was because of traffic in front of Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov. Aube-Kubel was robbed at the doorstep, but Dowd plucked the puck out of mid-air on the rebound try. A kind of goal that you’d typically see in a playoff game.
this fourth line is inevitable right now pic.twitter.com/BrbH1a45N7
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) November 12, 2023
The grittiness continued for the rest of the contest. The Capitals showed dedication to sacrificing the body and making Hunter Shepard’s job easy. That commitment led to a season-high 31 shot blocks and the Caps would go on to sweep the two-game road trip.
Malenstyn and Lucas Johansen led the team with five blocked shots. Johansen even got rewarded with a career-high 20:11 minutes of ice time.
“You need those types of wins some nights you know, they’re gonna come a little easier, and those are always nice, but that was a gritty one,” Dowd said. “It’s great for those young guys to get in those types of situations because there’s going to be times, middle of the year, end of the year, playoffs where you’re going to look to those guys, and it’ll be nice for them individually to say ‘I’ve done this before. I’ve been here’.”
“It was a character win,” Carbery said. Difficult circumstances with the back-to-back, on the road losing a few bodies mid trip and so for us to find a way, it wasn’t pretty at times and [we] had to defend quite a bit but we found a way.”
Following Saturday’s 4-1 victory over the Islanders, the Caps are third in the Metropolitan Division, sitting two points behind the Carolina Hurricanes with two games in hand.
The Capitals will have to bring those two mindsets once again on Tuesday when they host the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Vegas Golden Knights.
By Jacob Cheris