Home Brewing –
Washington’s heretofore sporadic stops at home this season have produced middling results, but Friday’s game against Pittsburgh begins what the Capitals hope will be a more favorable stretch on the Capital One Arena ice surface.
Over a span of 29 days, 11 of the Capitals’ next 14 games will be played in the District. Including Friday’s game with the Penguins, only three of the Caps’ home games over that stretch are against Metropolitan Division opponents.
As they get set to go head-to-head tonight, the Penguins find themselves sharing the top spot in the Metropolitan Division standings with the New Jersey Devils. The Caps are in seventh place in the eight-team division, but only three points separate the top seven teams on the Metro ladder. Tonight’s game gives the Caps a chance to climb that ladder a bit, but also to keep one of the rungs on that ladder from sliding further northward.
“It’s really important,” says Caps right wing Tom Wilson of Friday’s game against the Pens. “You always hear coaches talk about staying with the pack, and our identity over the last couple of years has been to lead the pack.
“Right now, we’ve done a decent job to date. We’ve had a lot of adversity to start the year – suspensions, injuries, stuff like that. But we’ve done a good job, and there are guys who have come up and have had a good campaign and have definitely earned a spot on the team. We’re getting healthier If we can play those divisional games and have success, get a couple of big wins here, then we’ll be putting ourselves in a good position to keep it rolling into the tough months of the year and down the stretch.”
Tonight’s game pits the Caps against their biggest rival, a team that’s just three points ahead of them in the standings, and a team that is laden with offensive talent. That’s all the motivation the Capitals should need.
“It’s a motivational factor for a game,” says Caps center Lars Eller. “When you look at the monthly calendar, this is one of the games you get really pumped up for. This is as fun as it gets during the regular season. With the rivalry and the playoff series over years and years, it builds up.
“This is a team where we should come out with some of our best hockey tonight. I think everyone wants that.”
Two Or Fewer –
In its first 10 games of the season, Washington surrendered four or more goals in half of those games, going 4-5-1 in the process. Since then, the Caps have permitted three or fewer goals in six straight games, and if throw out empty-net goals, the Capitals have permitted two tallies in five of the last six games. They’ve gone 4-2-0 during that span.
“Every time we talk about defense or offense, everybody is a part of it,” says Eller. “It’s a unit of five, and a lot of times the forwards have a lot to do with the defense or getting the puck out of the zone, faster exits and all that.
“I think we’ve been trending in the right direction, especially after the Western road trip. Maybe not so much last game; [Tuesday’s game in] Buffalo was not our best hockey. But there are steps in the right direction being taken all the time. And I think especially our young defensemen are taking big steps. Just from the start of the season until now I think you can see some big improvements.”
Lineup Tweaks –
While Washington’s defense has been shored up over the team’s last half dozen games, the Caps are still seeking a level of consistency at the other end of the ice. They’ve been missing top nine forwards Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly because of upper body injuries, and while they’ve had the occasional offensive outburst that results in four, five or six goals, they’ve had to make do with three or fewer goals on most nights, 10 out of 16 of them to be exact.
Coming off a game in which they managed just one goal against a team that was missing four of its top six defensemen, Caps coach Barry Trotz made a lineup adjustment at Thursday’s practice, and that change gets its first test drive on Friday night against the Pens.
Jakub Vrana had been manning the left side of a line with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie since the Oct. 28 game against the Oilers in Edmonton, but that trio has combined to amass just one goal and three points in those six games. Meanwhile, the unit of Chandler Stephenson, Eller and Wilson has combined to put up five goals and 13 points over the same time frame, with less ice time and far less power play ice time.
Trotz will flip Stephenson and Vrana for tonight’s game, changing out the two rookies and giving the former his first look in the team’s top six this season.
“I think Chandler has played okay,” says Trotz. “I didn’t think he was as good as he was the first couple of games, I’ll be honest about that. I just think that he might be a good complement for Backy and Osh going forward here, so we just tried that in practice [Thursday].
“If you watched last game, we probably used five different people on the left side with Backy. We’re just looking for a little spark there. That line has done a terrific job. Backy has done a really good job. I know there is a lot that has been said about him not scoring, or whatever. To me, it’s about winning. And he has had all the tough matchups, he is still creating good offense, but hasn’t got the numbers.
“I don’t think I have to tell you what I think of Nicklas Backstrom as one of the best two-way centermen in the National Hockey League and he should be a Selke [Trophy] candidate every year. Right now, he has had tough matchups. We’ve been on the road and I can’t dictate all that, so he has had some of those tougher matchups, and he has done a terrific job with that.”
After starting his NHL career by going pointless in 13 games stretched over parts of two different seasons, Stephenson has put up a goal and four points in seven games with Washington in 2017-18.
“It’s been quite the experience,” says Stephenson. “With [Backstrom] and Osh, it’s just give them a target and they’ll find you. So you’ve just always got to be ready, and you’ve always got to bear down with those guys, because they rarely ever make mistakes out there.”
“I’m just trying to do the best I can every day, every night – whether that’s practice or a game. I’m just trying to run with every opportunity I’m given, just have fun with it and not think too much, just go out and play hockey.
“[Backstrom] is one of the most underrated players in the league, and one of the best passers in the league. So I’ve just got to find some ice, and try to be myself at the same time.”
The 300 Club –
Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov will skate in the 300
game of his NHL career tonight against the Pens, doing just shy of the six-year anniversary of his NHL debut.
After missing the entire 2014-15 season because of a wrist injury and subsequent surgical complications, Orlov has played in 180 consecutive games for the Caps since. He averaged 19:32 a night in ice time last season, and that figure has gone up to a career-high 23:10 this season.
Most of the increase is related to Orlov’s work on the penalty-killing unit. He averaged just 14 seconds per night in shorthanded ice time last season, but is getting 2:51 a night in shorthanded ice time thus far in 2017-18.
“I was in a lot of the system and PK meetings,” says Orlov. “I just watched and learned and waited for my chance to play there. Right now I’m playing, and I’m trying to get better and trying not to give up a lot of chances when I’m on the ice.”
“Like any player, the steady growth of a player,” says Trotz, “they get to a point where they become that veteran player and you get that trust in them and you go from there. Even Dmitry, who hasn’t killed a lot of penalties the last couple of years, he is now because of our situation on defense with free agency and the [salary] cap and all that.
“He is a guy who had had to learn on the fly and add another little piece to his game. Now, he’s probably more of a complete defenseman than he ever has been, because of the fact that he has had to play in every situation, be it power play, penalty kill or five-on-five, late in games, against top players and all of that. That wasn’t on his plate two years ago; he just had to worry about one part of his game or two parts of his game then.”
In The Nets –
Caps goaltender Braden Holtby gets the net on Friday night against Pittsburgh, and he will be seeking his ninth win of the season and his fifth in succession. Holtby’s last loss came on Oct. 26 in Vancouver, a game in which he was pulled late in the second period. He has won four straight since while facing an average workload of just over 34 shots a night during that stretch.
Holtby is also seeking the 200
win of his NHL career tonight against the Pens. He is appearing in his 319
career game tonight, and if he defeats the Pens, he would become the second fastest goaltender in NHL history to reach the 200-win level. Hockey Hall of Famer Ken Dryden claimed his 200
career victory in his 311
career appearance in the league with the Montreal Canadiens back in the 1970s.
“Special players on good teams,” says Trotz of the Dryden-Holtby connection. “That’s the first thing that comes to mind. Obviously a Hall of Fame guy in Ken Dryden, and that says a lot about what Braden’s body of work in his era to this point has been.
“We’ve won a lot of hockey games since I’ve been here with Braden, and that’s the reason he is the number one goalie. He has put up good numbers. We’ve had good teams, but you still don’t win those games. When you’re not playing well you’ve got to steal those games, and he has done all of the above.”
Lifetime against the Penguins during the regular season, Holtby is 7-8-2 with a pair of shutouts, a 2.79 GAA and a .914 save pct.
Matt Murray gets the night tonight for the Penguins, who are starting off their sixth set of back-to-back games on the young season tonight. The Pens travel to Nashville to take on the Predators on Saturday.
Murray is 9-3-1 with a 2.90 GAA and a .906 save pct. this season. Lifetime against Washington in the regular season, he is 3-2-0 in five starts with a 3.88 GAA and an .870 save pct.
All Lined Up –
Here’s how we expect the Caps and the Penguins to look on Friday night when they take to the ice at Capital One Arena for the second of their two meetings in the District this season:
18-Stephenson, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 25-Smith-Pelly
13-Vrana, 20-Eller, 43-Wilson
87-O’Brien, 83-Beagle, 39-Chiasson
2-Niskanen (upper body, week-to-week)
10-Connolly (upper body)
65-Burakovsky (upper body, week-to-week)
91-Graovac (upper body, week-to-week)
43-Sheary, 87-Crosby, 72-Hornqvist
59-Guentzel, 71-Malkin, 81-Kessel
62-Hagelin, 15-Sheahan, 17-Rust
34-Kuhnhackl, 34-McKegg, 75-Reaves