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No place like the road for suddenly-vulnerable Capitals

When the Washington Capitals hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs at Capital One Arena on the final day of February, the bout featured two franchises trending in very different directions. Auston Matthews and the league’s top powerplay visited our nation’s capital for the first time this season riding high — lighting up Detroit for 10 goals in their last game.

Conversely, the Caps have struggled in nearly all phases of the game in 2022. Since the calendar flipped, Washington has posted a less-than-impressive 8-11-2 record which includes a five-game losing streak at home — the team’s longest home losing streak since 2007. Considering the Capitals ended 2021 tied with Tampa Bay for the most points in the league, they’ve picked a bad time to take their foot off of the gas.

The maddeningly inconsistent Ilya Samsonov started in net for the Capitals … and gave up a goal on the second shot he faced. The 25-year-old netminder then allowed two goals in the final 71 seconds of the first period prompting coach Peter Laviolette to end his night early.

While Washington was able to keep things relatively competitive for most of the evening, Toronto ultimately cruised to a convincing 5-3 win. Tom Wilson scored twice, once on the powerplay and once shorthanded, and Conor Sheary added his 12th goal of the season for the free-falling Caps — who drop to 3-8-1 at Capital One Arena in 2022, with none of those victories in regulation.

If this season is going to be remembered as anything other than a disappointment, Washington needs to get back on track sooner rather than later.


Samsonov picks bad day to forget how to play

When the schedule was released, this was one of the most anticipated games of the season. For the first time in two years, the dynamic Edmonton Oilers visited our nation’s capital.

Connor McDavid. Alex Ovechkin. Leon Draisaitl. Evgeny Kuznetsov.

The best overall player in hockey today against arguably the best pure goal scorer of all time. A young and exciting club hoping to put together all of the pieces squaring off against a grizzled group of veterans trying to make one last run at glory. What more could a hockey fan ask for?


The Caps welcomed the Oilers without the services of Ovechkin, and his team-leading 29 goals and 58 points through 46 games, after the 36-year-old tested positive for Covid-19 earlier in the day. The Russian Machine may never break, but it means he’ll also miss this weekend’s All-Star Game festivities.

Additionally, T.J. Oshie and Vitek Vanecek were unavailable for the marquee matchup, as both recover from upper body injuries.

Edmonton, who has struggled to find consistency all season long, showed no sympathy to their shorthanded hosts, scoring on three of their first four shots of the game — sending Ilya Samsonov to the showers before he even had a chance to break a sweat (after just five minutes and seven seconds of action).

Pheonix Copley, who was added to the Caps’ taxi squad earlier in the day, was thrust into action and had a strong showing — stopping 21 of 22 shots in relief duty. Lars Eller, Conor Sheary and Kuznetsov scored for Washington, who rallied to make a game of it. But ultimately, McDavid and friends prevailed, 5-3, earning their fifth win in six games while preventing the Capitals from recording a third-consecutive victory of their own.


Futile Fucale is no match for Bruins’ barrage

While Alex Ovechkin continues to defy conventional wisdom (and Father Time), the fact remains that the current version of your Washington Capitals is clearly built to win now. 

Along with The Great 8, guys like Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and John Carlson are established veterans who are much closer to the end of their playing days than the beginning.

Capitals coach Peter Laviolette and general manager Brian MacLellan obviously know this, and realistically, should be pleased with what they’ve seen from the bulk of the roster during the current campaign.

That said, while Washington’s offense has done the bulk of the heavy lifting and the defense has been steady and solid, the team’s biggest question mark is at goalie.

Neither Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek has done enough during their time with the franchise to stake their claim as a long-term solution. Which is why Laviolette turned to Zach Fucale as the Boston Bruins came to town for a rematch of last year’s disappointing playoff series.

Fucale is a 26-year-old netminder who got the call-up from Hershey and promptly recorded a shutout in his NHL debut back in November. In his next two appearances, Fucale was equally impressive and featured a 0.42 goals against average and .980 save percentage prior to his first-career home start.

Sadly, the good times did not continue against Boston, as the 2013 second round pick was waxed by the resurgent Bruins — allowing four goals on 16 shots before his night was ended midway through the second period. 

Conventional wisdom suggests you should never get too high or too low after a particular outing, but nights like this are a harsh reminder that if the Capitals are going to avoid a hasty elimination in the postseason for a fourth-consecutive season, they’re going to need someone to step up and solidify the goaltending situation. Whether that someone is currently on the roster or not remains to be seen.


Caps trade punches with Predators, emerge victorious

The Washington Capitals and Nashville Predators do not play each other very often, which is probably a good thing considering how heated these two teams became during their not-so-cheerful holiday gathering. That said, while it might not have been hugely fun for the combatants, this action-packed event entertained the masses with eight goals and 68 minutes in penalties.

Capital One Arena was rocking throughout the first period, thanks to goals by Lars Elder, John Carlson and Nic Dowd. Unfortunately, the rink was tilted in the opposite direction for the second period, as Nashville battled by tie even the score at 3-3. This grudge match was ultimately decided when Evgeny Kuznetsov craned-kicked Nashville, via a shorthanded tally with less than six minutes to play to break the deadlock. Carl Hagelin added an empty-net goal in the closing moments to prevent any last-minute heroics by the Predators.

Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson all returned to the lineup after missing games recently due to injuries and/or COVID-19. And they weren’t the only new faces in the lineup. The game also marked the debut of rookie defenseman Alex Alexeyev and the triumphant return of defenseman Michal Kempny, who hadn’t played an NHL game since August 2020 because of three different serious injuries to his left leg.

Alexeyev became the 10th rookie to play for Washington this season, which usually means trouble. But the Capitals have been able to not only stay afloat, but remain competitive while still giving the youth movement a chance to see what it takes to play at the highest level. If this game is a sign of things to come for the Caps, and they’re able to avoid serious injuries and the COVID-19 list, then the last 50 games of the regular season could be a wild ride.


In marquee matchup, Capitals defense comes up short

When the Washington Capitals jumped out to an unexpected fast start this season, they did so with above average play from the back half of the lineup — namely the defensemen and goalies.

While Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov received ample love and attention as they accumulated points in rapid fashion, and the handful of rookies playing meaningful minutes every night made for a feel-good story, stout defensive play in Washington’s own zone was a key reason why the Caps held the best record in hockey a month into the season.

Unfortunately, since posted back-to-back shutouts just before Thanksgiving, Washington’s defense has taken a massive step backwards. After falling to the rival Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2, the Capitals have now allowed 30 goals in the nine games since Los Angeles and San Jose failed to score in consecutive outings.

Of course, it’s difficult to have consistency and stability defensively when you’re forced to play with a new roster seemingly every time you take to the ice. The Capitals faced Pittsburgh without bottom-six forwards Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway and defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk, who are in NHL’s COVID-19 protocol. Additionally, forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Anthony Mantha remain sidelined as they recover from injuries.

And yet, no one in hockey will shed a tear for Washington. Peter Laviolette’s men either need to figure out how to limit opponents to under three goals a game or a once-promising season could derail quickly.


Caps done in by two posts and a Flower

You’ve got to give it to them — the Washington Capitals are anything but predictable this season.

Before the campaign even began, most entities based outside of Maryland, D.C. and Virginia took one look at an aging and expensive lineup that has been bounced from the postseason in the first round for three consecutive years and decided that the window for Alex Ovechkin and friends to bring home a second championship had firmly closed.

Additionally, more than a quarter into the season, the Caps have still not had the services of top-line center Nicklas Backstrom, who is still recovering from a hip injury. T.J. Oshie, Anthony Mantha and several other key contributors have also been in and out of the lineup due to various ailments, and yet, Washington entered the week with the NHL’s top record.

When the Chicago Blackhawks came to town, they were not enjoying the same level of success as the Capitals this season, struggling to find consistency this season as they reside in seventh place in their own Central Division. So naturally, just when you expect the Caps to cruise to a resounding win over a wounded opponent, the hockey gods had different plans.

On this night, Chicago bested the Capitals 4-3 via shootout, thanks in large part to the exploits of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and two goal posts. Goals by Nic Dowd, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Garnet Hathaway weren’t enough to prevent Washington from dropping to 0-7 in shootouts this season.


Alex Ovechkin and friends outlast Arizona

For the first 52 minutes of this encounter, nothing worked for the hometown Washington Capitals. Everything they threw at Coyotes rookie Karel Vejmelka was turned away, as the young netminder made spectacular stop after improbable save. 

Considering Arizona didn’t even register a shot on goal during the first 17 minutes of the contest, the game would have been an absolute blowout if not for amazing efforts of Vejmalka. Sure, one team came into the contest without a regulation loss while the other had yet to earn a win, but the 25-year-old’s 30 saves proved he was up to the task.

In the end, the better team won as Washington picked up a 2-0 victory, but it wasn’t the prettiest of showings for the boys in red. 

Alex Ovechkin finished the night with a goal and an assist, giving him 15 points for the season — tied with Connor McDavid for tops in the league. The 36-year-old Russian dynamo notched goal No. 739, bringing him within two of Brett Hull for fourth all time.

While Ovechkin continues to defy logic (and Father Time), this game marked the debut for 2019 second-round pick Brett Leason. In fact, because of injuries to Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Nic Dowd, the Capitals are in the midst of a bit of a youth movement these days.

Leason joined three other rookies in the lineup — Connor McMichael, Hendrix Lapierre and Martin Fehervary — a welcome sight for one of the NHL’s most veteran rosters. Another aspect of the game that will bring joy to the fanbase was the strong showing by goalie Ilya Samsonov earning his fourth career shutout. Samsonov improved to now 3-0-1 this season, with a 2.43 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage.

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