With the long break between games I was able to reach out to Japers’ Rink to gain a little bit of extra pregame knowledge before the Florida Panthers take on the Washington Capitals tomorrow night at the BB&T Center. If the Cats are hot, then the Caps are absolutely on fire.
Japers’ Alex Ervin was nice enough to take the time to answers the questions below, so a big thanks to her for providing insight on Capitals.
The Capitals are currently sporting the best record in the league. What’s the story behind the hot start?
I think Todd Reirden having a full season behind the bench is a big part of it. They came into last season as the defending champs, and Reirden was a first-time head coach trying to lead them to a repeat - there had to be a ton of pressure there. While he’s had some different hurdles to jump at the beginning of this season, he seems much more comfortable in his role. I also think that lack of pressure to repeat extends to the team as a whole; we saw during their Cup run that they seem to loosen up when expectations aren’t as high. Only the team knows if that is the case or not, Some skaters have also had personally stellar starts to the season, which certainly helps. John Carlson, of course, but also Alex Ovechkin, Jakub Vrana, and Michal Kempny.
Speaking of John Carlson, he has gone from a very good defenseman to putting up Paul Coffey/Bobby Orr type numbers over the first 16 games. Is he doing anything differently and he can he keep up this torrid pace?
Well his torrid pace has slowed since the calendar flipped to November (no points through two games), but I think everyone knew it wasn’t totally sustainable. John Carlson has always been a two-way defenseman, and this season was clearly no different. Seven goals and 23 total points through October’s 14 games is just... absolutely nuts, and as someone who has been watching him play for almost a decade, I think the biggest shift in his game has been a mental one. Now that he has an A on his sweater, he helps set the standard for his teammates, and especially for the other defensemen. He has always been an elite skater and playmaker (there’s a reason he has quarterbacked the Capitals’ power play since the start of the 2015-16 season) but being less in the background this season seems to have shifted his focus. He has never been afraid of a challenge, but now he looks to be much less hesitant about stepping into the spotlight to do so.
Another big change for Carlson actually goes back to March of 2018 and comes in the form of his new defensive partner, Michal Kempny. Part of what has allowed Carlson to loosen up a bit is the fact that he has a perfectly complementary partner that allows him to play to his strengths more. Jonas Siegenthaler, Carlson’s partner to start this season when Kempny was still out with a hamstring injury sustained in March, gave Carlson the same opportunity, but it was Kempny that got that ball rolling.
One last interesting tidbit about Carlson’s season so far: his average ice-time in October was at a whopping 25:46, a full 46 seconds higher than it was last season. He has skated 409 minutes through 16 games, which is 62:47 more than the next skater on the list, fellow defenseman Dmitry Orlov. Having Michal Kempny back in the lineup should bring that rolling average down, but that’s still insane.
Does this year’s edition of the Capitals have a better chance of winning the franchise’s second Stanley Cup than last year’s team?
I think that this year’s team has just as good of a chance, but for different reasons. For example, this season’s lineup looks different but feels just as strong. The roster last October was almost identical to the one that won the Stanley Cup, which I believe helped their odds coming into last season. This year, they lost a few familiar faces and added some new guys to every part of the roster, and that adds a new level of uncertainty. Some of the new additions are definitely still waiting to click with the team (and one of them, Richard Panik, hasn’t had much of a chance because he has been on LTIR since October 16), but the others seem to be fitting in well. Something that hasn’t changed? The Caps are still just as strong in net as they were last season with Ilya Samsonov sitting backup to Braden Holtby instead of Pheonix Copley. Samsonov has been great to start the season, and his five NHL wins leads all rookie goaltenders in the league.
Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, I think the lack of pressure that comes with being the “defending champs” works in the Caps’ favor this year. When they’re loose and having fun on the ice, they seem to play better. The less in their heads they are the better.
Are there any new additions to the Capitals that Panthers fans should keep an eye on during Thursday’s tilt?
Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic have been incredibly fun to watch so far this season. Hathaway is a big guy who likes to throw his weight around, but he can also have some really nice offensive finish. Leipsic is smaller but so speedy, and he moves the puck really well. The Caps’ fourth line has had some excellent moments so far this season, and he has been a huge part of them. Leipsic also has great escapability about him - he always seems to be able to slip right around opponents on the ice to keep the play moving.
It’s prediction time. Who wins the first game of the year between the Caps and Cats?
This is going to be a pretty fun game, and I think it’s going to be a close one. Both offenses can produce high-scoring affairs, and both Braden Holtby and Sergei Bobrovsky have the potential to put on amazing performances in net. I do think the Caps have the edge here, in part because they have more experience playing against Bobrovsky when he was in Columbus but also because they have a bit more scoring depth. However, my prediction of a Capitals’ victory comes with a fun caveat: Brett Connolly scores a goal against his former team.