Toward the end of November and beginning of December, Washington’s scorers weren’t scoring, the penalty kill wasn’t killing and murmurs were swirling the 2016-17 Capitals just didn’t have last season’s killer instinct, when the team sprinted away from the rest of the NHL en route to a President Trophy-winning 120-point campaign.
The last seven games have quieted the skeptics. Since Dec. 5, Washington has gone 6-1 and is now on pace for a scorching 113-point season.
Forward T.J. Oshie said the Capitals are more effective when they’re choosing their shots instead of over-relying on puck skills to crash the offensive zone, skate to the net as quickly as possible and take on the opposition one-on-one.
“I think we’re better when we pick and choose our chances to go on a rush,” Oshie said. “Every once in a while, yeah, we can get through them with our skill, but more times than not [it won’t work]. With our speed and work ethic, when we get pucks behind them, we’re able to get it back and extend our zone time.”
Oshie’s not sure if the Capitals are getting fewer second chances than they were last season, but rushing the puck up the ice understandably creates fewer secondary chances and those so-called “dirty goals.”
“I just think last year, there wasn’t that many turnovers,” Oshie said. “I can’t necessarily remember if we were chipping more pucks, I just think that we were making better decisions and moving pucks in better areas to get in the zone. It’s not a tough thing to fix, I think it’s just a mentality going in that, once we get across the red line, that puck’s getting deep one way or another.”
Smart plays with the puck will be crucial against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Capitals’ upcoming opponent on Wednesday — a game that featured in prime time on NBCSN’s Rivalry Night. The Flyers have been on a tear, winning 10 of their last 12, gaining at least a point in 11 of them.
Jakub Voracek, who went through a painful run last year, scoring just a single goal in his first 30 games, is a big part the Flyers’ success. He’s averaging a point per game this year, scoring 11 goals and 23 assists in 34 games, tied for the third-most in the NHL. Close behind him is Claude Giroux, with 30 points in 34 games, and prolific power forward Wayne Simmonds is making noise with 16 goals this year, tied for the fourth-most in the National Hockey League.
Separating the Flyers from the rest of the NHL is their power play. Philadelphia has converted on 22.8 percent of their opportunities this year, fourth-highest league. And it’s no surprise to see the likes of Giroux, Simmonds and Voracek powering the way. Giroux’s 15 power play points and Simmonds’ eight power play goals both lead the NHL in the respective categories. Factor in Voracek’s and Brayden Schenn’s 13 power play points apiece and defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere’s nine, and the Flyers have dangerous options all over the ice.
“Five really good players,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “To me, they pass the puck really well. Obviously Giroux is a key guy. A lot of deceptive passes. I think Voracek is on another level this year in terms of trust in his own game. Wayne Simmonds in front. They’re a shooting power play, and they make plays off those situations.”
The Flyers are also getting contributions from two young phenoms. Drafted with their seventh-overall pick in the 2015 draft, defenseman Ivan Provorov has been as good as advertised. Responsible in his own zone, Provorov’s success in the offensive zone as a junior-level player has translated to the NHL, as he’s recorded three goals and 12 assists in 34 games.
Drafted just 17 picks later in that same 2015 draft, Philadelphia is getting value from their undersized forward in Travis Konecny. At just 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, Konecny relies on intelligence and positioning, and it’s already earned him four goals and 12 assists at the ripe age of 19.
“He’s one of those young kids that has a dynamic skill set,” Trotz said of Konecny. “He gets to those open spaces. You look at the speed and release, he’s got good hockey sense offensively. That’s the new-age player.”
Konecny also can surprise with his feistiness. In November against the New York Rangers, Konecny took exception on a boarding penalty Rangers’ forward Brandon Pirri took on Brandon Manning. Immediately, Konecny charged at Pirri, ripping off his gloves before toughly throwing him to the ground.
That edge has become synonymous with the Flyers’ brand of hockey. On each line, virtually anyone is capable of stepping up for a big hit or dropping the gloves in pure anger. Between forwards Simmonds, Schenn and defensemen Manning and Radko Gudas, a thunderous hit can be thrown or fisticuffs can break out at any given moment. And with the game featured on national television and a heated rivalry, the Capitals are fully expecting a ramped up, physical game.
“Anytime we’ve played the Flyers, it’s been intense,” Trotz said. “I don’t expect anything different. It’s an important game in the standings for both teams. I’ve yet to see us and the Flyers not have an intense game.”