WASHINGTON — The Capitals entered the month of December sporting a sub-.500 record with four teams in between them and the closest playoff spot. A combination of injuries, bad puck luck and a brutal schedule dug them into a hole they haven’t often found themselves in over the last 15 years.
It appeared December might bring more of the same when they opened the month with back-to-back losses, but the Capitals then went on a run that included two separate five-game winning streaks to turn their season around. Even as the injuries continued to mount, the Capitals posted an 11-2-2 record to thrust themselves into the thick of the playoff race.
A month ago, they were four points out of the second Wild Card spot in the East. Now, the Capitals turn the calendar to 2022 holding down the third-place spot in the Metropolitan Division. Here’s what we learned about this team in December.
Their goaltending tandem is legit
The Capitals’ poor start could have turned into an outright disaster when Darcy Kuemper landed on Injured Reserve with an upper-body injury he suffered after taking an elbow to the mask in a game against the Calgary Flames on Dec. 3. Kuemper, playing the first season of his five-year free agent deal, had been a bright spot for Washington in the early goings.
In stepped Charlie Lindgren, who did much more than just keep the Capitals afloat. He put together a dominant eight-game stretch, posting a 7-1 record with a .930 save percentage and 2.00 goals against average to incite Washington’s hot streak. Lindgren earned his NHL First Star of the Week honors for his efforts and showed the Capitals could count on him for more than an occasional spot start.
“He was on fire in there and I think the team really rallied around that,” Kuemper said of his teammate’s play ahead of his return Dec. 22. “Super happy for him, happy for our group. We needed the points. So it was nice to see the guys get on a roll.”
Between Lindgren and Kuemper, the Capitals posted a team save percentage of .927 in December. That ranked No. 1 in the NHL followed by the Tampa Bay Lightning (.924) and Boston Bruins (.923). Regardless of which netminder is starting, they’ve both earned the confidence of their teammates to show out on any given night.
Pucks can bounce their way
In last month’s edition of this column, we talked about how the Capitals held the advantage over their opponents in nearly every possession metric but a paltry 8.4% shooting percentage was limiting their offense. They turned that around in December, putting up a 11.8% shooting percentage that finished fourth highest in the league.
The Capitals actually put up a Corsi For percentage below 50% for the month, suggesting that their opponents carried the puck more often than they did. They did, however, start cashing in on their opportunities much more often. Washington averaged one goal every 15.9 scoring chances in 5-on-5 play during November. They cut that down to one for every 7.6 this month.
“I don’t think we’ve played our very best yet but right now we’re just on the right side of things and we’re playing disciplined,” center Lars Eller said Thursday. “5-on-5, everybody’s doing everything, we’re getting contributions from every line and that’s one of the big keys.”
Leading the way in the offensive department has been none other than Alex Ovechkin, who won two First Star of the Week awards on his way to tying and then passing Gordie Howe for the second-most goals in NHL history. Ovechkin paced the team in goals (13) and points (22) while scoring on 18.3% of his shots — his best shooting percentage for a month this season.
Depth has been on full display
While Ovechkin has continued scoring goals at his historic pace, the Capitals have not yet seen another player step up as the clear No. 2 option in the offensive zone. Conor Sheary ranks second on the team with 11 goals behind Ovechkin’s 23, but he trails both Evgeny Kuznetsov (six goals, 27 assists) and Dylan Strome (eight goals, 20 assists) in points.
Rather, the Capitals have seen scoring 12 from all different corners of the roster. Their third line trio of Garnet Hathaway, Nic Dowd and Aliaksei Protas has combined for eight goals and nine assists this month. Defenseman Erik Gustafsson is riding a seven-game point streak and now is taking on a bigger offensive role with John Carlson out indefinitely.
On the season, Washington has 15 players with at least 10 points this season, second most in the NHL behind only the Seattle Kraken (16).
“Whatever the 20 guys are that are in the lineup that night, certainly in the last month, have focused in on the job at hand and they’ve done a really good job making sure we’re ready to play, playing with a purpose, executing, finding wins, finding points," Laviolette said at morning skate Thursday, "And because of that we’ve pushed up [the standings]."