In early March, Capitals forward Daniel Sprong found himself on a two-on-one with Alex Ovechkin, the best companion he could ask for in that situation.
Ovechkin is universally considered the best goal-scorer of the generation, certainly the best on the Capitals, and to some, the best player to ever shoot a puck. Sprong’s choice seemed obvious. But not to him, as he called his own number with Devils defenders chasing Ovechkin down.
Sprong’s wrist shot found the back of the net, and while it might have been a surprise he elected not to pass, it shouldn’t necessarily be. Because not only this season, but in years past as well, the Capitals have made a habit of having some of the best depth scoring in the NHL. This year, that notably includes Sprong and Conor Sheary.
As for why and how that’s been a trend? There are a few theories. But as the Capitals head into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, potentially down a few top-line players to boot, that secondary scoring will be as valuable as ever.
“It’s one thing for guys to play games,” assistant coach Scott Arniel said. “It’s another for guys to chip in and score goals. Especially when you’re losing some of your top goal-scorers. Both (Sprong and Sheary) have helped us tremendously, whether they’re playing in a lesser role on our third line, or playing on our top line, which they both have done, they’ve both stepped in and helped us tremendously.”
The evidence of that standout play isn’t hard to find for either Sprong or Sheary.
Sprong had 13 goals in 42 games this year, just shy of his career-high 14 in the 2018-19 season. That season, he hit the total in 21 more games. In this, his first year as a Capital, he shot 17.6 percent which was far and away the best mark of his five year career.
He also ranked fourth in the NHL behind Auston Matthews, Jakub Vrana and Ross Colton in goals per 60 minutes (1.59), a measure designed to show how efficient a player is in his minutes at five-on-five play. Just one player (Colton) in the top 30 players averaged less time at five-on-five per game than Sprong did this season. Sprong’s mark was the most efficient a Capitals scorer has been, in terms of goals per 60, since the 2009-10 season when tracking began.
“I’m getting into the right spots for the scoring areas and giving myself the opportunity to put the puck in the back of the net,” Sprong said. “I’m shooting from spots where I believe I can score and I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Sheary isn’t massively far down at 40th, ahead of both Teuvo Teravainen and Patrice Bergeron. Sheary, like Sprong, had a standout year with 14 goals in 53 games on a 15.9 percent shooting percentage in his first year as a Capital, also a career-best. His goals per 60 is the eighth best for the Capitals since tracking began.
As for reasons for their success, the first theory is that Ovechkin and the top lines draw attention away, just like on Sprong’s odd-man rush, but over game-to-game instead of an individual play. Due to the shortened season where so many games were played back-to-back, teams have made it a point to shut down the Capitals’ top lines.
It’s not as simple as giving Sheary and Sprong more ice time either, as more for them would mean taking away from (when fully healthy) lines that have Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie on them.
“They’re paying special attention to those guys and making it almost like the playoffs themselves, not giving them a lot of room,” Arniel said. “Those guys step in now, and now you’ve got depth. Any team that has depth, that’s gonna be huge and that’s what we’re getting with those two guys in our lineup.”
Not only have Sprong and Sheary’s successes been a one-off, they’ve been a trend through the years in D.C.
Eric Fehr, who played nine seasons in Washington, had the first, second and third-best shooting percentages of his 14-year career when he was a Capital. In the 09-10 season, he was 11th in the league in goals per 60 minutes.
Playoff hero Joel Ward played four of his seasons in Washington and had the first and second-best shooting percentages of his career, including a remarkable 18 percent in 2013-14.
Brett Connolly, in his three seasons as a Capital, shot the best, second-best and fourth-best percentages of his career, including an absurd 22.4 percent in the 2017-18 season. He also was 14th and 18th in the NHL in the 16-17 and 18-19 seasons, respectively, in goals per 60 minutes.
The notable faces, for the most part, haven’t changed in Washington. But their offensive impact is greater than just when they’re on the ice. And as they’ve shown this year, Sprong and Sheary can fill in, and score, on the top lines too.
“With the starpower we have on the team, sometimes the middle six forwards might get overlooked by the other team and the top guys are going to get the top offensive and defensive matchups every shift,” Sheary said. “Sometimes you can slide in and be an effective second or third line player, you’re going to get those second and third d-pairings which sometimes can be a mismatch and you can take advantage of that.”
And while the top players certainly help, there’s the simple theory that the secondary scorers the Capitals find are just good players.
In the last six seasons, the Capitals have ranked (from 2021 through the 15-16 season): 2nd, 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 2nd and 3rd in five-on-five shooting percentage. That’s certainly a result of the elite scoring talent on the Capitals, but the third and fourth lines, too.
In his time in Washington, Arniel said, Sprong has made himself a more-rounded player that is better on the walls and more adept at getting to the scoring areas. After three seasons in Pittsburgh and just over a season in Anaheim, he landed in Washington looking for a shot as a full-time player.
The same went for Sheary, who left the Penguins after the 2017-18 season. He went to Buffalo for a season-and-a-half before a brief stint back in Pittsburgh, but only after he scored just nine goals in 55 games in 2018-19. He came to Washington just before the season eager for a bounceback. And both Sheary and Sprong have, in major ways.
“I just think here in Washington that it’s a really good culture,” Sprong said. “Of course, it’s a great group of guys, and I think we’re just all trying to win games. Every night there’s a different guy stepping up. I think we’re a really close team and we’re winning hockey games. That’s most important for us. It doesn’t matter who scores.”
Their goal-scoring is valuable in more ways, too, as Sheary and Sprong combine for just $1.46 million against the salary cap. Both are under contract next season, where Sheary will get a modest raise to $1.5 million per year through 2023.
Sheary, in terms of team money spent per goal, was the cheapest player in the NHL this season according to CapFriendly. Sprong was third and fourth line center Nic Dowd, with 11 goals this season, was seventh.
“The cost to get those guys is so important to help you,” Arniel said. “We’re a cap team, and we don’t have a lot of extra money to spend. When you can get cheaper, and I don’t mean it to cheapen the way they play, but cheaper players, that is huge. As we know, goal-scorers get paid for their body of work.”
And as Game 1 of the playoffs on Saturday against the Bruins draws ever closer, the Capitals’ role players will come into focus in a more important way.
As opposing teams throw everything they can at stopping Ovechkin and the like, the other lines have a chance to shine, and may be forced to.
“I think I’m just excited,” Sprong said. “I’ve watched so many playoff games but never got to play in one yet in the NHL. I think I’m mostly excited to play in the playoffs, every game is a different game and it’s going to be a long, hard-fought series with every team. Hopefully, it goes our way and we can go on a long run.”
In the 2018 playoff run when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup, their four most efficient playoff shooters famously were Devante Smith-Pelly (24.1 percent), Brett Connolly (18.8 percent), Jay Beagle (16.7 percent) and Andre Burakovsky (16.7 percent). Ovechkin was fifth, at 15.2 percent. Of course, Ovechkin shot more times (99) than all those players combined (85). But those depth players scored when they had to.
“I think from my experience, going through playoffs, secondary scoring and goaltending are two of the biggest things that get you to the Stanley Cup Final and eventually win,” Sheary said. “If we can have those things going into playoffs, I think that’s going to be huge for our team success. Our top lines are powerplay guys, they’re usually going to continue to score, but if our secondary scoring drops off, there’s a big hole there that needs to be filled.”
So if the Capitals are going to make a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs it might start with Ovechkin and the top line, but the middle six has proven potent enough to do some damage of their own. No matter if the success is related Ovechkin and the Capitals' elite top-end skill, or the talent of the middle six, the offensive system or anything else, the results have been mightily impressive.
And just like that rush against the Devils in March, defenders frantically trying to stop Ovechkin might not be such a bad thing for the Capitals after all.