Following a red-hot month of December that saw the Capitals turn their season around with an 11-2-2 record, they turned the calendar to 2023 and welcomed a pair of stars back to the fold in center Nicklas Backstrom and right wing Tom Wilson.
Though their roster was as close to full strength as it had been all season, the Capitals endured some growing pains as they tried to find a winning lineup combination. Washington went 6-7-1 in January, never stringing together multiple wins in a row but remaining in control of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
After entering the month in the Metropolitan Division’s third-place spot, the Capitals will go into the All-Star Break as the top Wild Card team in East with four teams close behind them. Injuries have continued to crop up and lineup reshuffling has been a consistent theme, but they still picked up some wins over quality opponents.
Here’s what we learned about the Capitals in January.
Backstrom, Wilson needed time to acclimate
There’s no debating the Capitals’ potential this season is higher with Backstrom and Wilson in the lineup than without them. But for two players who made their season debuts Jan. 5 after undergoing major offseason surgeries, fitting them into a Capitals system that had been clicking on all cylinders has proved to be a month-long endeavor.
Head coach Peter Laviolette inserted both forwards into the Capitals’ top six and their power-play units for their season debuts and Wilson started to get some time on the penalty kill as well. He then rolled out a different lineup almost every game, trying out different pairings before settling on Backstrom and Wilson sharing a line together.
Any progress toward establishing chemistry there was put on hold when Wilson suffered a lower-body injury blocking a shot with his right leg against the Colorado Avalanche on Jan. 24. He missed the Capitals’ final three games leading into the All-Star Break, a tough setback after Wilson had scored twice in four games prior to the contest in Denver.
Meanwhile, Backstrom has started to look like his former self with points in two of those three games including his first goal of the season Sunday in Toronto. He also scored the game-winning shootout goal in Thursday’s emotional victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. It may have taken a month, but the Capitals will hope for both of them to come out of the break healthy and able to help lift the team back to the heights it enjoyed in December.
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Loss of Carlson has been a challenge
Just before the month began, the Capitals saw defenseman John Carlson go down with an upper-body injury when he was inadvertently struck in the head by a puck Dec. 23. Carlson has resumed some light skating and low-level exercises but won’t be reevaluated to determine a potential timeline for his return until the end of February.
In Carlson’s absence, the Capitals have had to rely on their defensemen to pick up their top blue liner’s production by committee
Erik Gustafsson has seen the most power-play time since his injury, leading all Washington defensemen with 12 points over that span. The Capitals are thin on right-shot defensemen without Carlson, leaving Trevor van Riemsdyk and Nick Jensen to take on greater shares of the minutes.
Carlson hadn’t missed extended time in seven seasons, thrusting the Capitals into a new position of having to replace his production on several fronts. The power play in particular has been a challenge for Washington; the unit is 8-for-41 overall since his injury, a rate of 19.5%. With at least another month before he can return, the Capitals will continue to figure out how to weather life without him.
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Playoff picture has come into focus
While the Capitals hovered around .500 for the month, the New Jersey Devils (.769 point percentage in January) and Carolina Hurricanes (.714) separated themselves with six- and 12-point leads over the third-place New York Rangers, respectively. The Rangers (.750) enjoyed a strong month and now sit two points ahead of Washington with four games in hand.
An automatic playoff bid for finishing in the top three of the division remains in play, but the Capitals are now right in the middle of the Wild Card race with 10 weeks to go in the regular season. They hold an even 60 points, sitting right in front of the Penguins (57), Buffalo Sabres (56), New York Islanders (55) and Florida Panthers (54).
The Capitals have played more games than any other team in the East, so every one of those teams chasing them have at least one additional game on the schedule down the stretch with which to earn points. They have only nine scheduled games in February, which will give the others a chance to gain ground on them.
How can Washington maintain its position? Winning. The Capitals go head to head with the Panthers, Rangers and Sabres this month, three crucial matchups that could determine their playoff hopes. They also face the Hurricanes twice and the NHL-leading Boston Bruins in their first game out of the break. With their playoff lives in the balance, every point matters.
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