With a shortened season of only 56 games to play, as well as realigned divisions to limit travel, it is more important than ever for NHL teams to start strong if they have any intention of making it to the Stanley Cup playoffs this year. The Washington Capitals did just that, starting off their 2021 NHL season with a win in Buffalo against the Sabres on Jan. 14 and winning again the next night. Despite these promising wins to start off the season, the Capitals have endured losses both on and off the ice. The Capitals suffered the suspension of four of their players Jan. 20, including star captain Alexander Ovechkin, for violating health and safety protocols put forth by the NHL.
The team violated COVID-19 pandemic protocol when Ovechkin, along with his fellow teammates center Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenseman Dmitry Orlov and starting goaltender Ilya Samsonov gathered in a hotel room while neglecting to wear masks. As a result of this violation, the NHL fined the Capitals $100,000, along with barring the four Russian players from playing or practicing with the team by placing them on the NHL’s unavailable list. Being put on the unavailable list necessitated their absences in the following four games, the first two against the Buffalo Sabres, whom they have previously beaten twice this season, and the latter two against the New York Islanders.
“Our training staff has worked extremely hard to create a safe environment for our players and staff to be able to compete this season,” the Capitals said in a statement. “We are disappointed by our players’ choice to interact in their hotel room and outside of team approved areas. We accept the NHL’s decision and once again will reiterate the COVID-19 protocols in place to make sure the players are in full compliance moving forward.”
The punishment received by the Capitals at the hands of the NHL shows how seriously the organization is taking the health and safety of players, coaches and event staff. The NHL is clearly not messing around when it comes to following COVID-19 regulations. Unfortunately, now the Capitals have to both pay a fine and suspend four of their key players. The NHL is using this incident to set a precedent for other teams and players who are possibly thinking of violating COVID-19 protocol. The league is clearly stating that violations will not be tolerated. Punishing certain players will put teams at a disadvantage, however, which could potentially be detrimental to playoff aspirations this year, considering the shortened regular season.
These consequences have not been the case for the Washington Capitals. Without Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Orlov or Samsonov in the lineup, the Capitals are obviously at a disadvantage. However, the team is doing surprisingly well without them. The Capitals won on home ice 4-3 in a shootout against the Sabres on Jan. 22, only to reverse the outcome Jan. 24, losing to the Sabres 4-3 in a shootout. Debuting their brand-new third jerseys, the Capitals prevailed 3-2 on home ice Jan. 26 against their former Head Coach Barry Trotz and the New York Islanders after a late goal scored by Justin Schultz.
The Capitals face the Islanders again on home ice Jan. 28, hopefully keeping their winning streak alive in time for the four suspended players to rejoin the lineup at Capital One Arena against the Boston Bruins on Jan. 30. Despite the lack of serious consequences, it is safe to say the Capitals learned their lesson and will be more cautious of COVID-19 protocol going forward.