Again With The Atlantic –
Washington finishes off a trio of games against Atlantic Division foes on Monday night in Tampa when it takes in the Tampa Bay Lightning in its lone visit to the west coast of Florida this season.
The Caps opened up the campaign with consecutive triumphs over the Senators in Ottawa and then the Montreal Canadiens at Capital One Arena.
The Caps were 2-0-1 against the Bolts last season, and they own a 19-5-4 record against the Lightning since the 2010-11 season.
Since the start of last season, the Capitals are 20-4-2 against Atlantic Division foes. The Caps have earned at least a point in nine of their last 10 games against Atlantic denizens, going 8-1-1 in those contests.
Chemistry 101 –
Washington’s line combinations generally have some level of familiarity to them. Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov have played together a fair amount over the years, and Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie have played together frequently since Oshie’s arrival in the District at the start of the 2015-16 season. Brett Connolly and Lars Eller were both newcomers to the Capitals last season, but they spent the better part of the season on the same line.
Jay Beagle centered a fourth line with Daniel Winnik and Tom Wilson last season, but Winnik has moved on (to the Minnesota Wild) and Wilson has moved up (to the third line with Connolly and Eller). So Beagle has a new linemates this season, and sometimes chemistry can be slow in coming with new combinations.
Two games into the young season, Beagle has played with Devante Smith-Pelly on his right side, and we saw a fair amount of those two players together during the preseason as well. Tyler Graovac and Nathan Walker have split the two games on the left side of that line, and Walker is expected to play in that slot tonight against the Bolts.
“I think it helps that there are four guys on the fourth line, usually,” says Beagle. “And it helps that we had some preseason games together – me and Smith-Pelly – and then they rotated a bunch of left wingers in. But it makes it easier for that left winger to just jump right in if the other two of us kind of have chemistry.
“Me and Devo have really been able to read off each other pretty quick. He is a smart, all-around good player who is fun to play with. He is enthusiastic. There are certain guys you love to play with, and he is one of them. He is a fun guy to play with, and the chemistry has come quick. Also, we are [killing penalties] together. If you’re killing together, the five-on-five chemistry also comes quicker.”
Beagle and Smith-Pelly combined to help Walker score his first NHL goal in his debut on Saturday night at Capital One Arena against the Canadiens, and Smith-Pelly is also pleased with the arrangement in the early going.
“It’s fun,” says Smith-Pelly, of playing on a line with Beagle. “It’s pretty easy. He likes to work. He’s very predictable, he’s always in the right spots, so it’s pretty easy to read off of him. I just have to do my job and I know that every shift he is going to be what he needs to do for sure.”
Most coaches develop their line combinations by starting with a pair of players who work well together, and then blending in a variety of guys as the third skater of the unit. Caps coach Barry Trotz is no exception.
“The thought process is, let’s find two guys that can play with each other and we’ll find the third component,” says Trotz. “In some games, the third component can be moved around, and I’ve done that.
“I think everybody that’s in this business will tell you that you’re looking for someone who can make plays, someone who can score and someone who can get pucks to people and read off people well. You’re looking for a combination of [those elements] to be effective. Some guys, you swear these three guys are going to be fantastic together. You put them together, you leave them together and you get nothing. And then you make one switch, and it’s like a light switch.”
Bolts No Longer Banged Up –
The Caps have had some success against the Lightning in recent seasons, but they haven’t played many games against a fully healthy Lightning team, as they will on Monday night. Going into the third game of the season, both teams are at peak health with no players ailing or on injured reserve.
“They’ve got guys who can make plays, and they can fly,” says Caps defenseman Matt NIskanen of the Bolts. “They play a really fast, skilled game. I think [we need to] do the things that we do well, play fast and pressure all over the ice, eliminate their open ice, and do good things with the puck when we have it. We can make plays and attack – that’s a strength of ours, so we should do that – we’ve just got to remember to work hard without it, too, to negate their ice and negate their chances.”
In The Nets –
Philipp Grubauer will get his first start of the season tonight against the Lightning. This is Grubauer’s third full season in the NHL, and in each of those campaigns, his first starting assignment has come a shade earlier on the calendar.
Back in 2015-16, Grubauer’s first starting assignment came on Oct. 23 against the Oilers in Edmonton, a 7-4 Caps win in Washington’s seventh game of the season. Last season, Grubauer also started the Caps’ third game of the season – a 3-0 whitewashing of Colorado in the District – in 2016-17, but that start was on Oct. 18.
This time around, Grubauer gets the nod in the single digit days of October, and he does so once again in the Caps’ third game of the season.
“Obviously it’s nice,” notes Grubauer. “I look back at my first year and I think it took four or five weeks to get a start. Definitely early in the season helps to get back into it, and I’m glad it’s tonight.”
Prior to joining the Caps on a permanent basis at the start of the 2015-16 season, Grubauer was accustomed to starting 50 or so games a season when he was playing in the minor leagues. Coming up to the NHL and serving as a backup – and playing much more sporadically than he was used to doing – required some adjustments.
“It’s changed a lot,” says Grubauer. “I never really backed up, so coming in was quite the adjustment. You’ve got to stay ready all the time. You don’t get as much ice time in practices, and certainly the work we did with [Caps director of goaltending] Mitch [Korn] helped a lot, too.”
Grubauer is 3-0-0 in his three career appearances against the Lightning, with a 2.09 GAA and a .935 save pct.
For the Lightning tonight, Andrei Vasilevskiy will get his third straight start at the outset of the 2017-18 season. Each of his first two starts this season came against Florida, and he went 1-1-0 in those outings. Lifetime against Washington, Vasilevskiy is 0-3-0 with a 4.38 GAA and an .874 save pct.
All Lined Up –
Here’s how we expect the Caps and the Lightning to look on Monday night when they take to the ice at Amelie Arena for Washington’s only trip to Tampa this season, but bear in mind that the Lightning are always a decent bet to go with seven defensemen on any given night, and they’re currently carrying eight of them on the roster:
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 13-Vrana
65-Burakovsky, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 39-Chiasson
79-Walker, 83-Beagle, 25-Smith-Pelly
No Capitals Injuries
90-Namestnikov, 91-Stamkos, 86-Kucherov
17-Killorn, 9-Johnson, 24-Callahan
18-Palat, 21-Point, 37-Gourde
14-Kunitz 13-Paquette, 23-Brown