Week 17 Recap: Caps Lock Up Second Seed

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Posted May 9, 2021

Tom Wilson (Caps Outsider)

In a week that proved crucial in the East Division race, the Caps were depleted yet still managed to come away with six points to lock up the second seed.

The Caps opened their week in Madison Square Garden on Monday to face the New York Rangers in a game that sparked controversy throughout the week.

Washington was missing key players in each game this week which has created concern with the playoffs looming. Alex Ovechkin returned against the Rangers after missing four games due to a lower-body injury, but exited the game after just on eshift. Justin Schultz was also out with a lower-body injury while Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ilya Samsonov were both out for disciplinary reasons (late to a team function). In addition, T.J. Oshie missed the game on Monday because of the death of his father. 

Despite missing players, the Caps were physical and still managed to garner offensive production. Pretty strikes from Nic Dowd and Conor Sheary boosted the Caps to a 2-0 lead deep into the first period. Mika Zibanejad cut the lead in half to end the first period. The Caps entered the game 15-3-3 when leading after the first period, a record that they improved upon by the end of the night. It was the Rangers who started out hot in the second period as Zibanejad netted his second goal of the night to tie the game 2-2, followed by a goal from Kaapo Kakko off a slick feed from Alexis Lafreniere. The Rangers maintained a one goal lead throughout the second period as the Caps’ injuries started to show through. Washington was much weaker defensively in the period and gave up a couple of power plays. Nonetheless, a Garnet Hathaway goal near the end of the second period knotted things up and put the Caps back in good position entering the final period of play.  The third period of play provided some controversy as a fight broke out between the two clubs. The most noticeable and emphasized part of the scrum was no doubt the hit on Artemi Panarin by Tom Wilson. Based on the video replay it is unclear if Wilson was defending Vitek Vanecek who seemed to get kicked on the play. Regardless, it was enough to injure Panarin who left the game. Wilson, on the other hand, was fined. Hockey fans were divided on whether a suspension was necessary. Fortunately for the Caps, Wilson did not receive any suspension. From then on the game shifted in favor of Washington starting with a defensive miscue from New York that set up a goal from Daniel Sprong. A pretty strike from Nicklas Backstrom extended the lead to 5-3.  The Caps went on to win 6-3 in fitting fashion as none other than Wilson found the empty net to end the game. 

As debate ensued over the repercussions of Wilson’s actions, the Rangers, with nothing left to lose, turned the game into a boxing match right from the start, engaging in a three fights at the opening faceoff. In the second period it was Oshie who started the scoring as the Caps gained a 1-0 lead. Midway through the second, Oshie netted his second of the evening. Clearly an emotional night, Oshie played with passion and has been a key contributor since entering back into the lineup.  As frustrations ensued over the hit on Panarin from the previous game, Anthony Mantha was cross checked in the face by Pavel Buchnevich who received a major penalty, a fine, as well as a one game suspension for his actions. Whether you believe Wilson deserved a suspension or not, it was clear that Buchnevich’s hit to the face was dangerous, unnecessary and warranted a response from the league.  Despite the instigations from the Rangers, the game was all Washington with Dowd scoring off a deflection to increase the lead to 3 in the second period. A Lafreniere strike cut the lead early in the third period, but Oshie was back at it with an empty net goal to give himself a hat trick on the night and the Caps a three goal lead. Morgan Barron found the net in the final minute but it was not enough as the Caps earned their second straight win over the Rangers and a crucial four points in two games. 

Finally out of New York, the Caps started their final home-stand of the season on Friday against the Flyers. Back from a non-covid illness, Sprong re-entered the lineup and was once again a critical contributor for Washington. Wilson was also in the lineup on Friday night despite exiting the game with an apparent upper-body injury. With Samsonov out once again, Vanecek got the start and provided crucial saves to keep the Caps in the game. As the playoffs approach, the starting goaltender situation still remains a looming question for Coach Laviolette. Both net-minders have impressed; however, Vanecek may be the safe option in terms of health and consistency (has accumulated a streak of starts in goal). The game on Friday was also the first for Michael Raffl against his former club since being acquired by the Caps. A shot off a deflection from Joel Farabee started the action early as the Flyers jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first period. The Capitals had few chances in the first, the only offense was generated by Sprong who had an early goal that was called back for being kicked in; however, he eventually found the net late in the period to tie the game and notch goal number 13 on the season (Sprong is one shy of tying his career high he set during the 2018-2019 season). An early second period goal from Wade Allison put the Flyers back in front 2-1. Allison had an impressive outing, finding the net once more in the second to extend the Flyers’ lead to 3-1 and gain his second goal on the night. Deep into the second Oshie provided a key goal, his fourth in the past two games, to cut the deficit to one. Oshie has been a huge factor in the Caps’ success, scoring 15 goals in his last 20 games. Oshie has a total of 22 goals on the season which is currently second on Washington’s roster (only two behind Ovechkin who has 24). The third period was uneventful for the Caps with little shots on goal much less an opportunity. The injuries once again showed as the passing was poor and puck possession was slim.  An empty net goal from Sean Couturier sealed the deal as Philadelphia took the win and avoided losing six straight to the Caps in a single season for the first time. 

With a tight East Division race, the loss was crucial as the Caps missed out on key points that may have given them a chance to claim first place. The Caps were back in action against the Flyers on Saturday night, their last game against Philadelphia this season and another chance to gain points. Injury trouble continued for the Caps as John Carlson and Backstrom both did not play due to lower-body injuries. The net also looked different as Craig Anderson started in place of Vanecek. Additionally, Garrett Pilon was upgraded to the active roster in place of Daniel Carr who was sent back to the taxi-squad. Pilon’s start marked his NHL debut. Schultz also returned for the Caps on Saturday night. In a game with some different faces for the Caps, Washington still managed to get mixed in injury trouble as Wilson left the game in the first period due to a leg collision while trying to skate with the puck up ice. Fortunately for Caps fans, Wilson returned in the second period; however, Oshie left the game late in the second period after a hit along the boards. He did not return to the game. The long list of players off the ice for the Caps has created a great deal of concern as Washington fans know that having a healthy squad is of the utmost importance with the playoffs right around the corner. It will be critical that Washington gets their key contributors back, as they are a dangerous team (especially on the power play) with everyone intact. Prior to their stint with the Flyers, the Caps were 2/11 on the power play in their previous three games despite being one of the best teams in that category in the league. After two scoreless periods of play, the Flyers broke the game open as Scott Laughton gave Philadelphia a 1-0 lead. The Caps had many chances but it took a “McNugget Minute” goal from Lars Eller in the final minute of play to tie the game at one a piece. By going to overtime, it allowed the Penguins to clinch first place in the division. In a back-and-forth overtime period, it was Sheary sealing the deal as the Caps rallied to a 2-1 victory, cementing their place as the second seed in the East Division. Craig Anderson also had an impressive night with 28 saves and a win to improve his record to 2-1 on the season. 

The Caps are now locked in for home ice advantage in the first round; however, depending on how things play out with the Bruins and Islanders, Washington could see either as their first opponent. 

Washington only has one remaining game, against Boston on Tuesday, which could prove interesting depending on how the Bruins’ matchup with the Islanders goes on Monday. A Boston win on Monday or Tuesday will see them pitted against the Caps; however, if the Bruins fail to win either of their last two games, that will send the Islanders to Washington in the first round. 

The Caps have fared well against both teams this season with the two matchups each providing their share of physicality. No matter who the Caps play in the first round, each opponent will give Washington a hard fought series. The East Division teams are all stacked with talent, which has shown on the standings as the seeding came down to the wire. 

The main area of focus for the Caps is being healthy. While Washington has depth and managed to hold their own this week (despite facing two non-playoff teams), it is undeniable that they are more dangerous with their star players and simply cannot make a run for the Stanley Cup without them. Unfortunately, the injury list is growing with no set time for key players to return. With the playoffs right around the corner, it is hard to be optimistic about the Caps making a deep run unless they can get guys back on the ice. 

It will also be critical for Washington to maintain their penalty kill. The Caps only allowed one power play goal on ten penalty kills this week. The defense has looked much improved and if star players return come playoff time, the power play and offense will be boosted as well. Interestingly enough, the Caps also managed to outshoot teams this week 115-76, an impressive mark for an offense that missed all of its top power play unit at one point. If the Caps can continue to create chances and play aggressive, it will only garner more success when/if the lineup returns to normal. 

There is no doubt that with a complete and healthy team, Washington is poised to be a dangerous cup contender. Only time will tell if the Caps can regain key pieces or if they will be missing guys for the opening round of the playoffs. This next week will be crucial in determining who the Caps play and what the team will look like for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.