ARLINGTON, Va. — Think back to Nov. 13, when the Washington Capitals played at the Minnesota Wild.
Tom Wilson made his season debut after an arbitrator announced he was modestly reducing the length of Wilson’s suspension. Wilson scored and the Capitals cruised, 5-2.
The next night in Winnipeg, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie were laid out with questionably rough checks and suffered upper-body injuries. General manager Brian MacLellan later confirmed on a podcast appearance they both had concussions. Kuznetsov and Oshie have not played since.
But on Thursday, the Capitals still led the Metropolitan Division by a point and carried a six-game winning streak into Friday’s contest against the New Jersey Devils.
The Capitals had the sixth-best record in the NHL (14-7-3) and ranked as the sixth-best offense (3.46 goals per game) — despite being able to play their usual top six forwards intact for less than two whole games.
So it remains to be seen just how dangerous Washington can be when its lineup is finally at full strength.
“I think there’s really no situation we haven’t gone through now,” coach Todd Reirden said. “Now that we went through what we did last year as a group, we’re hardened to some situations.”
During their Stanley Cup run last year, the Capitals’ standard forward lineup started with Alex Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Wilson, followed by Jakub Vrana, Nicklas Backstrom and Oshie. But even then, they had to cope with losing Wilson to a suspension during the Pittsburgh series and Backstrom being hurt for four games.
In those cases, just as in present day, forwards lower on the depth chart have stepped up.
“It was never to the situation where it was last week when we were missing Braden (Holtby) and Brooks Orpik and Kuznetsov and Oshie all at once,” Reirden said. “But it’s a situation where we’re finding ways to put the right people together and allow them to have success. To me it helps us gain long-term, big-time.”
It hasn’t been just the guys who traditionally get less ice time, but top-liners like Wilson too. Wilson has six goals and six assists on the Capitals’ six-game winning streak.
“Tom is a really important player for us,” Matt Niskanen said. “He brings a lot of energy, he’s really important to that top line hunting down pucks, having a physical presence and his offensive game is going up and up the last several years.”
Meanwhile, Kuznetsov could make his return to game action against New Jersey after fully practicing with the team Thursday. Oshie is further away in his recovery.
There could even be some minor concern for Ovechkin, now, as he did not practice Thursday and took a maintenance day for an undisclosed upper-body injury. But Reirden said he expects Ovechkin to play against the Devils. Kuznetsov and Ovechkin were not available to reporters Thursday.
After a hot start, the Devils have fallen to the back of the pack at 9-10-4, and they just announced that rookie winger Joey Anderson is out indefinitely after ankle surgery.