Part 1 of 3
As the 62nd game of the season is fast approaching lets look at the Washington Capitals season so far and what we should expect over the last 20 games heading into the playoffs. For the record, as long as the team is playing well heading into the playoffs, I could care less about seeding. It’s NEVER helped this team before. That being said, I do believe the Caps can finish with home ice at least in the first round.
When the Capitals entered the 2017/18 NHL season they did so with much different expectations than the previous two seasons from most fans and hockey minds outside DC. Many had the Caps relegating to a “changing of the guard” position, but within the dressing room they felt they could still compete for division title, and in turn take another run at a painfully long awaited Stanley Cup. So far this season the Caps have been a little Jekyll and Hyde. If they get somewhere in middle come playoffs, who knows what will happen. They looked great at times and at then we see a team that “Caps-izes” (thanks RMNB – great term) like they are waiting for April. On some nights Evgeny Kuznetsov has looked like a Hart trophy nominee earning the big contract but also has went 26 games without a shot…. well I’m exaggerating a tad but you all know what I mean.
With the losses of Justin Williams, Marcus Johannson, Nate Schmidt, and Karl Alzner the Caps knew they would have to make changes not only in player personnel but also adapt to a much quicker NHL. One of the best examples of that starts with captain Alex Ovechkin, who came into camp having been through an altered fitness regime during the off season and has looked lighter on his skates and sits atop the NHL goal scoring column after 57 games with 34 goals and inches closer to career goal 600.
Let’s look at the defense from whom we will need to Unleash The Fury come the 2018 NHL post-season:
Alzner was not a surprise loss as his UFA status forced the Caps to let him walk. The loss of Schmidt to the expansion draft however has likely cost the Caps most as his speed and puck maneuverability are clearly missed on the Caps back end and has forced the team to employ two rookie defensemen in Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos for the first time in over 20 years. Djoos has been the more impressive of the two so far as he’s shown great mobility and is not afraid to join the rush. He has three goals and 13 points so far and has also shown a propensity for dancing around opposing forwards in the Ozone. I’m expecting big things from this kid down the road. Bowey is still finding his way in his own end more so but has chipped in 12 assists while still looking for his elusive first goal in the NHL.
The Caps need to keep letting the kids learn. I am not opposed to a visit to the press box once in awhile, but so long as they are learning from mistakes, the club will be better of down the road. If it comes at the cost of a game now then so be it. I suspect them minutes would be drastically reduced come playoff time anyhow. I will say this much, Djoos needs to be in the lineup every night.
Brooks Orpik could use some “rest” once in a few games I believe and if his veteran coaching is so coveted, maybe some scouting by him from up top wouldn’t hurt a few games between now and April. While he is still not afraid to make a big hit and is a physical presence, Orpik is not able to keep up to the play at times. It’s not a matter of fitness (he may be the best on the team in that regard) it’s just his foot speed is, well, slow to be nice. And in the new age NHL, as Milan Lucic et al is finding out, the game is in the passing lane and Orpik is in the travel lane. Now to say Orpik is a liability may be a stretch. He still averages close to three hits a game and remains a blocking machine where he’ll likely finish with the most blocks he’s had since 2013/14. That is a thankless job.
John Carlson has been in the top 3 in defense scoring most of the season and was carrying the Caps during the Niskanen injury. His numbers are up across the board. This is making it a very tricky situation this summer as his impending UFA status likely is going to make him a very rich free agent. He leads the team in takeaways and has a chance at having the most takeaways by a Capital since 2011/12 (62-Oshie 2015-16) with 40 after 57 games. While he tends to have many giveaways on the stat sheet, this can be expected from a defenseman playing more than 25 minutes a game. Sitting third in team scoring he also has been producing on the power play currently only behind Ovechkin in points. A lot of that is attributed to being the setup passer for the howitzer we know as Ovi, but his right handedness is an effective weapon as he can lay the puck out for Ovi.
An injury to Matt Niskanen seemingly has altered his play somewhat since his return. His minutes have not decreased much but with only 13 assists in 43 games it seems unlikely he will get close to last years 34 in 78 games. He had 67 giveaways all of last year and already has accumulated 50 this season. That’s not the Niskanen we have seen in last few seasons. The Caps need Nisky of 2016/17 in the playoffs if they want to go deep.
Dimitry Orlov was signed last summer to a six year, $36.6M deal by the club and he’s responded by already matching his career high in goals (8 in 2015-16) after 57 games played. He’s taking on more tough minutes averaging almost three more per game and has shown more confidence in carrying the puck with his wheels. His slap shot remains his biggest weapon and I think he needs to use it more and his play in his own end has improved with already more takeaways this season (35) then last seasons 34. Still susceptible to the bad penalty and is risky at the offensive blue line but the risks are getting less and the rewards are more. Let’s hope that continues.
Taylor Chorney is admirably filling in as the veteran is a consummate teammate and has been ready when called on. Really, there is not much to add here. I don’t expect Chorney back with the squad next year.
This is the first time in three seasons that the Capitals will enter the playoffs not as a favorite and most in Rock The Red country likely feel how I do. Who cares? This team has been picked to win before and well, let’s not go down that foxhole. The Capitals likely have a better chance of going on a deep run and making all our dreams come true when we least expect it. With the last two seasons “going for it” ending in heartbreak to the Pens (again) in game 7, this season may as well be good as any. Are we getting the Jekyll or Hyde or something in the middle this spring??
I will look at the forwards and goalies next week.
Go Caps Go