- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Washington Capitals just wrapped up an unusually busy week. Not only did they have four games to play in six days, but three of those four went to shootouts.

The Capitals forced overtime with Arizona last Monday before losing in a shootout, but redeemed themselves later in the week with shootout wins over the Flyers and Bruins — the latter in particularly dramatic, come-from-behind fashion, with Jakub Vrana’s highlight-reel, toe-drag score turning out to be the game-winner.

Yet it was hardly out of the ordinary this season for the Capitals, who have needed overtime in 10 of their first 23 games and four shootouts.

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No team has scored more goals at 6-on-5 — in which a team trailing late pulls its goalie for an extra attacker in a last-ditch effort to tie — than Washington’s four. And no team with a minimum of 10 attempts in shootouts has a better shooting percentage than the Capitals‘ 50 percent (6 of 12).

Added together, the Capitals have been living on the edge, scoring in high-pressure moments of close games in order to scrape for every point they can. So far, it’s helped them reach their NHL-best record of 16-3-4 (36 points) entering Wednesday’s game at the New York Rangers. But will their luck eventually run out?

To be clear, pushing games to sudden death hasn’t been a deliberate strategy. For some reason, games on the whole have just been closer this season, the Capitals‘ great play notwithstanding.

“Every game is a challenge and you can’t take shifts off, especially early in the year,” coach Todd Reirden said. “That seems like it’s been a trend. So we play the game that’s presented to us and if it takes overtime, then it takes overtime. Then in a shootout, it takes a shootout.”

To T.J. Oshie, the amount of 6-on-5 time, overtime and shootouts the Capitals have needed is a bit unusual, but nonetheless sustainable.

“I think we got a good team in here, and I think we get a lot of other teams’ best efforts, so we know that other teams are gonna fight till the end to try to get a point,” Oshie said. “I think that we’ve got a team that, whether we’re up or down, just keeps playing the way we need to play right now. And therefore, when we’re down in games, we’re gonna find ways to claw back.

Oshie has accounted for two of the Capitals‘ 6-on-5 goals, both of which came last week. Against Arizona, Washington completed its comeback from down 3-0 with Oshie’s tying goal in the final minute, a putback of an Alex Ovechkin shot. Five days later in Boston, he ripped in a one-time off a feed from Evgeny Kuznetsov with a minute to go.

The 6-on-5 setup is like a bulkier cousin of the power play, especially in Washington. In addition to Oshie, Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson, the Capitals add Tom Wilson to the mix. He and Oshie set up shop in front of the net to screen and look for rebounds; Kuznetsov and Backstrom work the half-wall area and the goal line, and Ovechkin and Carlson patrol the blue line, facilitate plays or put pucks on net.

It’s not only about the personnel. Oshie credits the unit for not getting too risky as time ticks down and the pressure’s up.

“I think when you get desperate, that’s when you get sporadic and guys start throwing the puck around,” he said. “I think the calmer you can be in those situations, the better chance you have of scoring. We got two of the calmest in the league probably, with Kuzy and Nicky over there working the half-wall and the goal line. I think they settle a lot of us down. Me and Tom obviously don’t have the same amount of poise that they have, which is probably why we’re in front of the net and in the middle.”

NHL games become so much different the longer they go from here — during the regular season, overtime is five minutes of 3-on-3, and if no one scores there, it turns to a shootout, sometimes derisively called the “skills competition.”

The Capitals have a doubtless advantage here, too: Oshie is one of the best shootout players of all time, with a career success rate of 44-for-84 (52.4%). The Capitals have so many viable options that Ovechkin usually goes fifth.

Even though they’ve come away with 16 of a possible 20 points in their 10 overtime games, it’s still not ideal for the Capitals to be playing this much extra hockey. Reirden said the influx of overtime “absolutely” plays a role in his day-to-day scheduling.

“So then you’ll adjust your morning skate a little bit. You’ll have a day off, you’ll have an optional practice when your minutes are getting up there, on your higher-end guys in particular,” Reirden said. “It’s really a balancing act in terms of making sure that you’re keeping your top guys fresh and still keeping your bottom guys sharp in terms of being game-ready.”

Reirden said he noticed a league-wide trend forming: Entering last weekend, 13 teams had come back from a 3-goal deficit already. He said that had only happened 18 times all of last year.

That inevitably leads to more overtime, and longer games to grit out in general. But if that’s how it’s going to be, the Capitals feel they can handle it a while longer.

“I like our team in overtime. I definitely like our team in shootouts,” Oshie said. “I don’t want to say we’re built for that, but if we get in those situations, I think we have a good chance of getting that extra point.”

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