Oct. 17 vs. Toronto Maple Leafs at Capital One Arena
Time: 7:00 p.m.
TV: NBC Sports Washington
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7
Toronto Maple Leafs 4-1-0
Washington Capitals 3-2-1
The first half dozen games of Washington’s season came and went in just 10 nights, and with the Caps just a little bit on the good side of breaking even. After the last of those six games – an 8-2 pelting at the hands of the Flyers in Philadelphia on Saturday – the Caps were finally afforded a chance to catch their breath. They took Sunday off before reconvening on Monday for practice in preparation for their next challenge, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Last spring, the Capitals and the Maple Leafs hooked up in a thrilling and memorable first-round Stanley Cup playoff series in which five of the six games required overtime. On Tuesday night in the District, they’ll meet again for the first time since April 23 in Toronto, when then-Cap Marcus Johansson’s overtime goal ended Game 6 and the series.
Before devoting full attention to the Leafs, the Caps sorted through the rubble of Saturday night’s pounding in Philadelphia.
“What it does, is it brings a sense of situational play for us, where we need to improve,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “We lost our energy and we got a little bit tired. Our brains turned off a little bit, too. We started doing everybody else’s job. Our gaps weren’t good. Our one-on-one play sort of just fell apart. Our team play fell apart. And that’s what you have to learn from.
“We’re going to have success when we have balance to our game. That one got out of balance. It got out of balance for the fact that we didn’t take care of our own end. You’ve heard me always say that when we’ve been good, we’ve got a good offensive team. But, we piggyback everything off of solid defensive play. We piggyback our offense off of that.”
The Caps have prided themselves on being a strong possession team during Trotz’s tenure in town, but they’ve been inconsistent in that regard in the early going of 2017-18. Better puck management can help them in that regard.
“I feel like we need to realize that you can’t just give away the puck all the time,” said Caps center Nicklas Backstrom after Saturday night’s loss. “If we aren’t realizing it pretty quick it’s going to be a long season. Hockey is all about possession and we have to manage the puck. We have to make sure when we have it to take care of it. Can’t just give it away all the time or else that is going to be bad.”
Backstrom scored one of Washington’s two goals in Saturday’s loss, extending his scoring streak to five straight games (three goals, eight assists). On Monday, the NHL recognized his strong week by naming Backstrom the league’s third star of the week.
Washington played Saturday night’s game without stalwart defenseman Matt Niskanen, who suffered an upper body injury on Friday night in New Jersey, an ailment that landed him on long-term injured reserve. The Capitals summoned blueliner Madison Bowey from AHL Hershey, and Bowey made his NHL debut for the Caps against the Flyers.
Bowey is the third player to do so in the first 10 days of the 2017-18 season after a combined total of four players made their NHL debuts with Washington in the past two campaigns put together.
As the Capitals try to mitigate Niskanen’s extended absence from the lineup, expect to see a fair bit of mixing and matching and tinkering with whichever six defenders are in the lineup on a given night.
“They’re going to be shuffled from now until we get people back,” says Trotz. “There are pairs for practice. There will be pairs for parts of games. It’ll be a little bit situational.”
With their blueline stretched thin for the foreseeable future, the Maple Leafs are a far from ideal opponent. Washington led the NHL in fewest goals against permitted last season, but in nine games against the Leafs – including the six playoff meetings – the Caps yielded a total of 26 goals (2.89 per game) to Toronto. For many – if not all – of those games, Washington had the likes of Niskanen, Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and/or Kevin Shattenkirk available for duty. None of those four will be suiting up on Tuesday. It’s likely the Caps will have two defensemen – Bowey and Christian Djoos – in the lineup on Tuesday who have been in the league for less than a week.
Thirteen different Leafs (compared to seven for the Capitals) have already found the back of the net at least once this season, led by Auston Matthews’ five goals in six games. Toronto boasts a dozen players with at least three points (half a point per game) in the early going, while Washington can claim only six such players.
The Leafs have scored at least four goals in each of their four victories this season, and they’ve cooled down to “just” 10 goals over their last three games after pouring home 15 goals in their first two contests of the season.
“They’re a good hockey team,” says Trotz of the Leafs. “I’ve been watching the growth of Auston Matthews, for instance. If he were playing 20 years ago, we’d be saying he’s Mario Lemieux-like. He’s 6-foot-5. He skates great. He’s got unbelievable hands and a hockey IQ. He’s strong on the puck. Then you throw in the [Mitch] Marners and all of the young guys that they have. They’re just really deep. They added Patty Marleau. They’re relentless with their offense. And when they’re playing their two-way game, they’re really relentless, too. They’ve got tons of team speed.
“If you want to trade chances with the Toronto Maple Leafs, I know who’s winning that. They’re an exciting young team. They can make plays. They’ve got a good power play. They’ve got some really good role players. They’re really solid. They’ve got a good goalie in [Frederik] Anderson. They’ve got a couple dynamic guys on the back end. I said it last year that they were a top-level team. They’re showing it [now].”
For the Leafs, Tuesday’s game concludes a short two-game road trip that started on Saturday night with a 4-3 win overall. It also starts a set of back-to-back games for Toronto, which heads home to host Detroit on Wednesday.