- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 7, 2021

The Washington Capitals are off to a confounding start to the 2021-22 season.

Through 11 games, the Capitals have lost only two games in regulation, are tied for third in the competitive Metropolitan Division and are getting one of the best starts to a season in Alex Ovechkin’s illustrious career.

On the other hand, following their 2-1 loss to Philadelphia on Saturday, the Capitals have lost more games — including overtime defeats — than they’ve won and are dealing with several injuries to key players. 

The home loss on Saturday to the Flyers, whom the Capitals are tied with for third place in the division at 14 points, was Washington’s third-straight defeat. The Capitals fell to two-time defending Tampa Bay on Monday — their second loss to the Lightning this season — and then came back from down 4-1 against the Panthers only to lose in overtime. 

The three-game losing skid to open November follows the team’s 5-0-3 October. Not losing in regulation last month, the eight-game point streak was the second-longest to start a campaign in franchise history, only behind the nine-game stretch to open last season. But Washington hasn’t won two straight games since its wins over the Avalanche and the Devils on Oct. 19 and Oct. 21, respectively.

A big reason for the team’s start being neither bad nor great is its four overtime losses.

Washington (5-2-4) has lost all four overtime contests to earn one point in the standings instead of two for a win (or zero for a loss). At the end of the season, when the balanced Metropolitan Division is sorting itself out into which four teams will advance to the playoffs, the Capitals’ start this fall could end up being crucial for the team’s fate. 

If the Capitals narrowly miss the playoffs, their inability to win any of the first four overtime contests could come back to bite them. However, if they narrowly make the playoffs, which the Capitals have done for each of the past seven seasons, the ability to grind out a point in each of those games will prove helpful. 

“I’m always saying we have to take any point any way we can,” Ovechkin said after the team’s most recent overtime loss to Florida on Nov. 4. Ovechkin has 10 goals and eight assists this season.

Multiple players, as well as coach Peter Laviolette, said following the team’s third overtime loss to Detroit that maintaining possession is the key to success in overtime, when the game is reduced to 3-on-3. 

“We have to do a better job of managing the puck,” Laviolette said after the game on Oct. 27. “The whole thing is about puck possession.”

In the loss to Philadelphia, Washington fell behind 2-0 in the second period. The Capitals were outshot for the majority of the game before attempting to come back in the third period in the 2-1 loss. 

“We were sleeping in the first and got outworked in the second. So the third period I thought was our best period,” Laviolette said Saturday. “… It’s difficult to win hockey games relying on coming from behind by two goals in the third period to have to win a game. We needed to be better earlier.”

While gaining only one point in three games last week wasn’t ideal, the Capitals’ injury issues continuing surely didn’t help. Fourth-line center Nic Dowd came off injured reserve on Nov. 4 and played against Florida and Philadelphia, but second-line winger Anthony Mantha underwent shoulder surgery and was placed on injured reserve after the Panthers game. 

Mantha joined center Nicklas Backstrom (long-term injured reserve, hip) and T.J. Oshie (injured reserve, lower body) on the shelf, meaning Washington was without three of its top six forwards against Philadelphia. Backstrom and Oshie were both eligible to return Saturday, but neither were activated.

“It’s unfortunate those guys are out. We’ve got a lot of guys out who play a huge part in our team and that we miss. But the other teams in the league don’t care,” winger Garnet Hathaway said after Sunday’s morning skate. “… We have a lot of depth and a tight-knit group. We just have to be ready when we play. 

However, the injuries have created one of the team’s biggest bright spots so far, which has been the production from its young players. 

The Capitals’ graying roster has been a point of discussion for multiple years, as the team had the NHL’s oldest roster last season and sported the third oldest entering this fall. But five rookie-eligible players have appeared in games for Washington this season, including three who played in their first career NHL game.

The team’s lone goal Saturday was scored by rookie Brett Leason, who was called up from Hershey when Oshie was placed on injured reserve. 

Leason scored as part of an all-rookie forward line, as he was joined by 19-year-old Hendrix Lapierre and Connor McMichael, who was credited with the assist alongside John Carlson. Rookie defenseman Martin Fehevary was also on the ice for the goal, making it only the second time in franchise history that four rookies were playing when a goal was scored. The first came in Ovechkin’s rookie season. 

“We’re all young and I think we’re all going to be with this organization for a long time,” Leason said. “It’s definitely good to start playing together young and get that chemistry going.”

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

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