- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Through the first third of the season, the Washington Capitals are atop the NHL standings.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Capitals were 16-4-6 and had the most points in the league at 38, tied with Florida and Toronto and one point ahead of Metropolitan Division foe New York Rangers. 

Being near the top of the standings isn’t unfamiliar for the Capitals, who have been first or second in their division in every season since 2014-15 and in 13 of the last 14 years. But with an aging roster and multiple injuries, Washington having the league’s most points through 26 games would have been a surprise to some before the season.

Here are four reasons the Capitals are a first-place team through the first third of the season:

1. Full strength

The Capitals have been one of the league’s best teams at five-on-five.

As of Wednesday afternoon, they led the NHL in full strength goals with 69. That total puts the Capitals on pace for 217 goals at full strength — the most in the NHL since the league began tracking that data in 2009-10.

Additionally, the Capitals’ 3.5 goals per game rank fifth in the league and second in the Eastern Conference. That rate would be the team’s highest since 2009-10 when the Capitals scored 3.82 goals per contest. They’re also the only squad in the NHL to be top five in goals per game and goals allowed per game (2.46, fifth). 

One of the biggest reasons they’ve had success at full strength is the team’s forecheck.

“If your defense is good, I feel like we’re going to generate those chances [on offense],” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said Monday after the team’s shootout win over Anaheim.

2. Depth

Few teams have been forced to dip into the well as much as Laviolette has this season.

Twenty-three players have scored for the Capitals — second in the NHL behind Vegas’ 24. Washington had 22 goal scorers all of last season.

Several of those scorers are youngsters who found the back of the net for the first time in their NHL careers. Eight rookie-eligible players have registered a point for the Capitals this season, one of the highest marks in the league and a surprising fact considering Washington entered the season with one of the oldest rosters in the NHL.

But due to several injuries at forward — most notably Nicklas Backstrom (hip, long-term injured reserve) and Anthony Mantha (shoulder, IR) — the Capitals have frequently called up players from the farm. Additionally, the team is now in the middle of a small coronavirus situation, as three players — Nic Dowd, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Garnet Hathaway — are in the league’s COVID-19 protocol.

“We talked about it a little bit, but we haven’t made any excuses on why we can’t be successful,” Laviolette said Monday about missing players due to injury and COVID-19. “So it’s a credit to the players and the guys in the room, no matter who puts on the jersey for any given game, they have responded.”

3. Pleasant surprises

One of the main reasons the team has exceeded its preseason projections is the fact that multiple players are performing better than expected.

Most notable among them is center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has returned to form this season after an underwhelming 2020-21 campaign. The 29-year-old has stepped up to the first line, alongside Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, in place of Backstrom and is on pace for a career year. Through 26 games, Kuznetsov has tallied eight goals and 20 assists and is on pace for a career-high 88 points.

Maybe the biggest surprise is the emergence of rookie defenseman Martin Fehervary, who is playing alongside veteran blueliner John Carlson. Fehervary is playing a little over 19 minutes a game and has more than held his own with 42 blocks and 71 hits.

In goal, Ilya Samsonov has emerged as the team’s No. 1 goalie. Samsonov was expected to be the team’s top goalie this summer, but Vitek Vanecek outperformed him in the preseason and earned the start in eight of the team’s first 12 games. But Samsonov, who boasts a career-high .916 save percentage, has started eight of the last 10 contests, and his 11-1-1 record in goal is tops in the league.

4. ‘The Great 8’

Saving the best for last, Ovechkin is performing at the level he played at a decade ago.

Between setting records basically every week, Ovechkin is second in the NHL in goals with 20 and tied for fifth in assists with 21. His 41 points put him third in the league, only two behind Edmonton stars Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid.

No player in NHL history age 36 or older has reached 20 goals faster than Ovechkin did this fall, and his assist total is more than he had in 45 games last season or 68 contests the year prior. Now 16 goals behind Jaromir Jagr for third all-time, Ovechkin has scored on 18% of his shots — by far the highest of his career and more than twice the league average of 8.8%.

His 82-game pace of 129 points would be a career-high by 17.

While the team’s success at full strength, depth and play from its other key players all matter, having Ovechkin playing at an MVP-caliber level is arguably the main reason the team is atop the NHL standings. 

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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