November has typically been the month where the Capitals start to gain some separation in the Metropolitan Division standings. That wasn’t the case this year, however, as Washington went 5-7-2 for its first sub-.500 November record since the 2011-12 season.
The Capitals lost three straight games to open the month, when the team was at the height of its injury woes. They picked up a couple of wins over the Edmonton Oilers and Tampa Bay Lightning as players started to return to the lineup, but then stumbled through a four-game losing streak before closing out November with wins in three of four.
While the overall results didn’t knock the Capitals out of the running for a playoff spot, they will be in the unfamiliar spot of having to make up ground in the Metro down the stretch. Just how capable is this team of making that push? Here’s what we learned in November.
Oshie is crucial to the Caps’ playoff hopes
So far this season, the Capitals are 8-5 in games T.J. Oshie plays. Without him, they’re 2-6-3. The veteran winger, a key part of their roster for years, is even more important right now with center Nicklas Backstrom and winger Tom Wilson among the players on Long-Term IR.
Oshie’s value has been on full display since coming off IR himself; he recorded multi-point efforts in his first two games back and injected his high-energy play style back into a lineup that had been sorely missing it.
“If I’m not bringing positive energy, it’s probably time to send me home,” Oshie said ahead of his return Nov. 23. “I think that’s one of my characteristics and one of the things that I try to bring to the team. So, I’ll get in there and try to get the guys playing well and having fun again, have fun working hard and playing for each other. I think that’ll get us on the right track.”
He’s done exactly that, bringing some added physicality to the rink too with 15 hits across those four games — second most on the team. His scoring ability, particularly on the power play, is what the Capitals missed the most. But even at soon-to-be 36 years old, Oshie is as important to the Capitals’ success as he’s ever been.
Offense hoping for some better luck
The Capitals spent this past month carrying the puck more than their opponents. They outshot them 442-416. They held an advantage in Corsi (shots + blocks + misses) 732-637. They won faceoffs at a rate of 52.9%. Natural Stat Trick saw them generate more scoring chances (349-292) and high-danger chances (130-118) in the 5-on-5 than their opponents as well.
Despite all of that, the Capitals were outscored 45-37 including 29-22 at even strength. The simple fact of the matter was they weren’t finishing plays. Washington posted an 8.4% shooting percentage in November, which ranked 27th in the NHL. It also led the league with 259 of its shot attempts blocked, well above the average of 200.
“It feels like it’s not going our way and when you know it’s bouncing the wrong way, it’s just frustrating,” winger Marcus Johansson said Nov. 19 after the Capitals lost to the Colorado Avalanche 4-0 to extend their then-losing streak to four games.
“It feels like it has for a while now and we have to chase from behind…We’re such a good hockey team and it’s kind of gotten into our heads a little bit and we just got to work through it. We got to find a way to work together to get through this. This team can beat any team in this league and I think we’ve shown that. We’ve played some unbelievable hockey at times, we just have to do it for 60 minutes.”
There are plenty of numbers that suggest the Capitals should have been playing better than they were. While that does nothing to change where they are in the standings right now, it at least bodes well for their chances of improving their play moving forward.
Kuemper will be Caps’ workhorse
GM Brian MacLellan left little room for interpretation when he declared Darcy Kuemper the Capitals’ undisputed No. 1 goalie heading into training camp. Through the end of November, his usage has reflected exactly that. No netminder has started more games or spent more time on the ice thus far this season than Kuemper.
With Kuemper the probable starter in net for Thursday’s game against the Seattle Kraken, he’s set to make his 19th start in the Capitals’ 25th game of the season. That puts him on pace to start at least 62 games; he would be only the second goalie in franchise history with that many starts in a season behind only Braden Holtby, who did it three times from 2014-17.
“You need that in a No. 1 goaltender back there,” Oshie said of Kuemper following his shutout of the Calgary Flames on Friday. “We have all the confidence in the world in him, we see it every day and today was no different. I thought we slipped a little late in the third there, gave them a couple of chances, but I’m glad he ended up getting the shutout. He deserved it. He’s worked really hard. Him as well as 92 are a big part of what we need to do here.”
Overall, Kuemper has produced solid numbers despite inconsistent play by the players in front of him. He enters the month of December carrying an 8-9-1 record with a .917 save percentage and 2.51 goals against average. As the Capitals prepare to make a playoff push in the loaded Eastern Conference, they will lean on him to be a true workhorse in net.