A good start is arguably more important in the NHL than in any other sport.
From 2005 to 2017, approximately 75% of teams that were in playoff spots on Thanksgiving — about six weeks into the season — ended up making the playoffs.
Last year, the Capitals’ hot start carried them through the season. Washington was one of the best teams in the NHL with a 12-3-5 record on Thanksgiving, tied for first in the Metropolitan Division. That was near the high point of the team’s campaign, as the Capitals ended the regular season as a wild card team and then lost to the Florida Panthers in the first round.
Anything less than a torrid October and November and Washington likely misses the playoffs altogether.
Before the Capitals can get a leg up on the competition this year, the team will have to find a way to clear two big hurdles: the absences of injured forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson.
“You can’t replace 19 or 43,” Capitals veteran T.J. Oshie said, about Backstrom and Wilson. “You’re just not going to be able to do it. We’re going to miss them, definitely.”
It won’t be foreign territory for the Capitals and coach Peter Laviolette, though.
Backstrom missed the first few months of last season, too, and Washington was just fine without him. But playing without the 34-year-old center — considered one of the league’s best power-play distributors when healthy — and a physical wing presence in Wilson, who is coming off a career year, is a significant obstacle.
“We’re losing big parts of our team, so I think it’s still going to be a challenge,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said at media day last Thursday.
“I think we’ve shown in the past when we’ve had injuries that guys need to step up,” defenseman John Carlson said. “We all need to step up in certain ways, but certainly those are huge roles to fill. Those guys mean a lot to the team off the ice, but on the ice, Tom does everything, Nick is the best power play half-wall guy in the league probably. You can’t just say that we’re going to put the next guy in and it’s going to go as smoothly.”
The team wouldn’t commit to a timeline for either player, but Wilson’s is more secure. The 28-year-old said he feels “ahead of schedule” in his recovery from the torn ACL he sustained in Game 1 against the Panthers. Given the typical recovery for an ACL injury, Wilson would likely be back sometime in the middle of the season.
Backstrom, however, is more of a wild card. His battle with his left hip took a drastic step this summer when the Swede underwent resurfacing surgery — a more invasive procedure than his first hip surgery in 2015.
The issues in the hip returned at the end of the 2020-21 campaign, which caused him to miss the beginning of last season. He returned and had his moments on the ice, but overall was far from the player he once was.
“I tried everything else to make it better. But at the same time, this is kind of the last resort,” Backstrom said. “I had to do it. I had no other choice. It’s either that or I’ll skate on one leg again.”
Backstrom said he is “pain-free” and “very optimistic” that he will return before the end of the season. However, he has not begun skating yet and is instead focusing on the physical workout portion of his rehabilitation process.
“It was a life-changer for me in daily life,” he said. “Just to pick up socks, tie my shoes, stuff like that, and play with my kids. I couldn’t really do that, either. It helped me a lot functionally, and I’m happy about that. That part, I’m feeling great. Now it’s just the next step to get me back to the ice.”
MacLellan said the organization’s mindset when it comes to Backstrom is that it will be a “long road.” Backstrom’s injury (and Wilson’s) are part of the reason why MacLellan signed center Dylan Strome and winger Connor Brown in free agency.
“Those are a couple big pieces,” Laviolette said, “but I feel like some of the parts we picked up this summer can help cover that.”
• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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