VANCOUVER — Thanksgiving has a special meaning across the NHL, marking the end of roughly the first quarter of the season. It’s also a sort of benchmark for the league with very little standings movement expected after that date. Just three teams who were in a playoff position on Thanksgiving last year fell out of one by the end of the season, holding true to a trend: Since the league expanded to 30 clubs in 2000, 78 percent of playoff teams on Turkey Day ultimately make the postseason.
The Capitals will have played 23 games by Thanksgiving, and Washington is still a month from that point. But while the team has rolled past that juncture with little concern the past two years, boasting an impressive record with expectations way beyond just making the postseason, the Capitals may find themselves more mindful of the standings this time around.
Injuries coupled with growing pains after some key offseason departures and new faces in the lineup have Washington off to an underwhelming 4-4-1 start going into Thursday night’s game in Vancouver. That’s the first of a critical three-game Western Canada swing in which the Capitals hope to string some wins together and narrow in on an identity.
“We’ve kind of been a team that’s been a win, a loss, win, win, loss,” forward Alex Chiasson said.
“If you’re worried about trying to find your identity, you’re going to be out a playoff spot pretty quickly,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “I think everybody knows those stats about if you’re out of a playoff spot in November, it’s really, really tough to catch up. That’s something where, if you want to find your identity, I think you have to find it pretty quickly.”
Washington finished last season with just 49 man-games lost to injury, by far the healthiest team in the league. The Capitals are regressing to the mean this season with three players already out for extended periods. Top defenseman Matt Niskanen is on long-term injured reserve with a left hand injury, and the earliest he could return to the lineup is Nov. 7. Forward Andre Burakovsky had surgery on his left thumb on Tuesday, and is expected to be out for six to eight weeks. Depth forward Tyler Graovac is considered “week-to-week” with an undisclosed “upper-body” injury.
Orpik said this is “normal” for most teams. “We got spoiled here the last couple years,” Orpik said. But unfortunately for Washington, the team’s depth at forward and on defense was already depleted going into this season when salary-cap constraints forced the team to part with top-six forwards Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams as well as defensemen Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and Kevin Shattenkirk. The team is playing four rookies, a change from Coach Barry Trotz’s veteran-laden teams that won back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies with incredible regular-season success.
“We don’t have as much talent as we had the last couple years. That’s just a fact,” Orpik said.
The Capitals haven’t gotten much secondary scoring help — 19 of the team’s 27 goals have come from Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom. Trotz has tried to spread the scoring throughout the lineup by playing Chiasson and Tom Wilson in the top-six forward corps, though those players have typically played in bottom-six roles throughout their careers. Two rookies, Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos, are playing on Washington’s blueline, and Niskanen’s injury has put an even greater burden on veteran defensemen John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov and Orpik. Carlson and Orlov are averaging career-highs in time on ice with 26:43 and 23:53, respectively.
To top it off, the Capitals have averaged 33 shots against per game, up from 27.8 shots against last season, when Washington allowed the fewest goals in the league. Spending so much time defending in their own zone is tiring out the Capitals’ top players even more, limiting their offensive effectiveness.
Before Thursday’s slate of games, the only Metropolitan Division team with a worse points percentage than Washington was the 2-6-2 New York Rangers. It’s still early in the season with a lot subject to change, but the Capitals’ greatest struggle seems to be reconciling who they are now with who they have been.
“We have different people and we’re a lot younger, so we’re not quite the same,” Trotz said. “We still have some individuals that still want to play the same way we did the last two years, where it’s not geared for our success as a new group. We used to be able to make a mistake and make up for it because we had four lines, we could come at you and we could just wear you out. We had scoring right through our whole lineup. We could play a little bit more like that and we could actually get teams worrying about us and trying to chase us a lot of times. We’d roll four lines and they were playing their top people a little bit more and we were actually wearing them out by playing our top people less because we were fresher.
“Now, we’ve been chasing a lot of the games, which is a little different and a lot harder. You’re extending people and you’re trying to make some plays that maybe would work with nine top, skilled players. We maybe don’t have as much skill, so maybe you’ve got to keep it simpler in certain areas. … We’ve got to accept that a little bit more, and I think that’s the process we’re trying to go through a little bit.”
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