The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For the hurting Capitals, the first quarter of the season has been painful

Capitals goaltender Darcy Kuemper and defenseman Erik Gustafsson lament a goal earlier this month by the Penguins' Brock McGinn, right. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Here are the Washington Capitals, welcoming the comfort and familiarity of a pair of home games bracketed around Thanksgiving, in a completely uncomfortable and unfamiliar position. They have lost four in a row. They are in second-to-last place in the Metropolitan Division. They have the third-worst goal differential in the Eastern Conference. Twenty games in, they’re chasing the season.

“It’s very frustrating,” veteran defenseman John Carlson said. “It weighs on a lot of guys. And that’s kind of the vicious cycle when you are going through these things. It’s not in February or something where you were doing real good and you need to kind of reset and get back into it. This whole beginning of the season has been rocky.”

And early-season rockiness is not something with which these Caps — with such a stable, reliable core — has had to deal. In the relentlessness of an NHL season, lulls are inevitable. The Capitals, almost invariably, have pushed them off. In the previous 14 seasons, only once have they finished the first 20 games with a losing record. The last time they posted fewer points in 20 games than the 17 they have now — a 7-10-3 record — they fired their coach. (Calm down. We’ll get to that.)

The easy answer for the struggles: injuries. Tom Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom, two foundational pieces, haven’t yet played — which was expected. The unexpected parts: T.J. Oshie has missed 11 games. Dmitry Orlov has missed seven. Carlson missed six. Connor Brown, a major offseason acquisition, blew out a knee in his fourth game. On and on.

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So on a nightly basis, the lineup that takes the ice only vaguely resembles the lineup they expected. Yeah, there’s some truth in the thought that this is what you signed up for: assemble an old team, and not everyone’s going to lace up the skates 82 times.

But there’s a little bit of a perfect storm to how these injuries have upset the lineup, and tiny daggers that make it all sting that much more. Example: Darcy Kuemper, the Stanley Cup-winning goalie the Caps brought in to stabilize an unstable position, is 25th in the league in goals against average. The two goalies he replaced — Vitek Vanecek, now with New Jersey, and Ilya Samsonov, now with Toronto — rank third and fifth, respectively. (Yeah, GAA is a flawed stat for individual evaluation, and Samsonov responded to securing the top job with the Maple Leafs by getting hurt. Still.)

Back to the injuries. Brown, acquired in an offseason trade with Ottawa, was supposed to help offset the absence of the physically impactful Wilson, who is still working his way back from the torn ACL he suffered in last year’s playoffs — and may not be back till after the new year. That hasn’t happened. Last season, when the Caps suffered a similar run of early-season injuries — particularly to Oshie and Backstrom — Wilson was around to team with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, providing the Caps a line that could carry a team.

Now, there are nights when no Caps’ line can carry a period. Dylan Strome, an offseason free agent signing, was meant to fill in for Backstrom, and has done fine. The problem: He’s not Backstrom. Conor Sheary is not Wilson, either. Alexei Protas is not Oshie. There’s a pattern here. The Capitals have decent depth. But that’s what it has to be: Depth. Not bunches of bit players thrust into starring roles.

So a franchise that, from 2007-08 to 2021-22, scored the second-most goals in the NHL and won the second-most games and piled up the most standings points now must take a different approach. That formula has to be measured out to the milliliter. The Caps must make the most of their power-play opportunities. (They’re 1 for their past 26.) They must excel on the penalty kill. (They have allowed five goals on 12 power plays over the past four games.) They must play consistent defense. (They’ve allowed four or more goals in six of their past seven games.)

And they have to, somehow, scrape and claw to net a third goal. When they score at least that many, they’re excellent: a 7-1-1 record. When they score two or fewer — which they have done in more than half their games — they are 0-9-2.

So here come the Philadelphia Flyers, just ahead of them in the standings, on Wednesday. Then the Calgary Flames on Friday. Then — gulp — a stretch in which they play eight of nine on the road, trips that span from New Jersey to Vancouver, Seattle to Philadelphia. The landscape includes no layups, not anymore.

“This group’s got to find ways to win hockey games,” Coach Peter Laviolette said. “Everybody sees players when they come back [and start practicing], so that’s always a positive sign. But the reality is we’ve got to work with what’s available to us, and these are the players that are available to us, and we work every day to try get better and win hockey games.”

A word about the coach: This isn’t on him. Yes, the last time the Caps suffered through a start worse than this was way back in 2007-08, when the first 20 games yielded six wins and 13 points. After a loss in the 21st, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Glen Hanlon was fired and replaced by Bruce Boudreau. It was the spark those Young Guns Caps needed. They changed both their style and their results. They won 11 of their final 12 games and pushed a 22-year-old Ovechkin into the playoffs for the first time.

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But if you’re sharpening your knives for Laviolette, save them for Thursday’s turkey. Laviolette won’t say it, and he shouldn’t, but Scotty Bowman could replace him tomorrow and struggle with this lineup and this schedule. Laviolette’s tone through it all is the following: “We expect to win. We’ve got good players in the lineup.”

He understands the production through 20 games doesn’t match the expectations this franchise has established. He also understands the first 20 games don’t make a season.

“Doesn’t guarantee anything,” he said. “There’s four or five teams this year that have had a strong start that have now drifted. There’s plenty of history that shows that somebody who maybe didn’t have the first month-and-a-half that they want, they make the playoffs and push deep into the playoffs. …

“Ultimately, we’ve got to make our way. You can’t keep putting it off for too long, either.”

For the Capitals, late in the season has come much earlier than expected. Eventually, important pieces will return to a tattered lineup. The questions, right now, are many: What will the standings look like when they return? What do these Capitals look like at full strength? And how does an aging core so accustomed to playing from ahead respond to having to chase a season, with yet another playoff berth at stake?