Busy Week –
The Capitals played just one game last week, and they had a four-day break between their Jan. 2 win over the Hurricanes in Carolina and their Jan. 7 triumph over the Blues in Washington. Including Sunday’s win over the Blues, the Caps play four games this week, and Tuesday’s home game against Vancouver starts a stretch of three games in four nights for Washington.
On the other side of that stretch of three games in four nights is another break, this one of five days in duration, and this one a complete break with no practices or meetings, either. The challenge for the Caps this week is to have a laser-sharp focus on the three games, and to shelve thoughts of beach vacations and other five-day break activities until those three games are in the rear view.
“It’s important to worry about the business in front of us right now, and that’s playing hockey, and we’ve got a busy week ahead,” says Washington winger Tom Wilson. “Obviously everyone is aware that the break is there, but we’ve got to make sure that we put in our time, put in our work, and make sure we take care of these next three games before we start thinking about the sun or wherever anybody is heading.”
The Caps have surfed their way through some scheduling woes over the first half of the season, and they’re facing some significant scheduling issues in January, when they have four breaks – all of which are longer than the three-day holiday break they had in late December. The upside is they’ll have some time to lick their wounds, to hone their game in practice, and to recharge their batteries this month.
“It’s kind of tough,” says Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov. “We just went without a game for four days and we’re going to be without a game for five days again. It’s kind of weird, but that’s the way of the schedule, right? We just have to play every game hard, and maybe at the same time [the schedule] will play for us. We will have those days where we can recover, and then we’re going to be healthy and we’re going to be fresh.”
Rush, Rush –
Over the past few seasons, the Caps seemed to score a good number of goals from sustained possession shifts in the offensive zone. That stood to reason, since Washington ranked ninth of the 30 teams in shot attempts pct. over the previous three seasons combined.
This season, the Caps rank 23
in shot attempts pct., and they are last in the NHL in shots on net per game. Those limiting figures haven’t harmed the Caps’ offensive output, though, as Washington ranks 10
in the league with an average of 3.07 goals per game in 2017-18.
What’s interesting (to me, anyway) is that the Caps also seem to have morphed into more of a rush team that tends to score more of its goals in rush or odd-man situations. I decided to ask a few guys what’s up with that.
“We just don’t have the zone time, that’s why we’re probably scoring like that,” says Kuznetsov. “I feel like we try to shoot right away or whatever; we don’t try to save the puck and kind of play the game a little bit. We just try to shoot right away and score off the rush. That’s probably the difference.
“The way the hockey works right now, you have a bunch of three-on-twos, two-on-ones or three-on-three where a skill guy makes a play one-on-one. If you have a bad gap or whatever, so many guys in this league – offensive guys – they can dangle pretty easily and they can create offense from that.”
From Matt Niskanen’s viewpoint, it’s merely a matter of diversifying the team’s attack.
“I don’t know if we’re getting more rush opportunities or what the deal is, but I think we have scored a few more up to this point of the season,” says Niskanen. “I don’t know if it’s getting more odd-man breaks or just executing better through neutral ice and trying stuff. I don’t know what it is, but it’s a good thing to have.
“It’s one thing to have your identity or your calling card of how you want to play, but why only handicap yourself to one way of playing offense. If you want to be a cycle team, a grind team, that’s great. But if a rush chance is there, it’s nice to be able to take advantage of it, too.”
“I’m not sure,” says Oshie. “ I think we can be a lot better at our changes, to start. I think that’s when you get the extended zone time, especially in the second periods, but it can also happen in the first and third. It happens when you get a little bit of extended zone time and, unselfishly, one guy will go for a change, even though he knows you’re in the [offensive] zone and there is a chance that you’re going to score a goal. But you have a better chance if you can get a guy out there that’s fresh.
“As to more rush goals, I can’t put my finger on exactly why that would be, but maybe some speed from some of the guys. I think [Chandler Stephenson] must have four or five assists off of his speed alone on the rush. There was the [Alex] Chiasson goal in Carolina [on Jan. 2], and he gave one to me when me and him and Nick [Backstrom] were playing together. [Alex Ovechkin], too, has been doing his Ovi thing here and there too, and I think that creates a lot more awareness from the other team and a lot more goals for us.”
Bench boss Barry Trotz sees it as part of the constant and ongoing evolution of the game.
“The puck possession game, when we have it, our team can make those high quality plays,” says Trotz. “So we’ve done a good job of that, combined with some structure when we have some good breakouts, and/or some neutral zone structure that turns into some regroups. We’ve been able to find things that work for us against different teams, and we talk about winning our races up ice to create some of those odd-man situations, and we’ve been executing them.
“It’s not about position, it’s about the numbers that are going north, if you will. And you see our [defensemen] are part of the attack there. It’s just entering [the zone] with numbers, and when we can win our races up ice, then those will create some of that. That’s sort of the new NHL right now.
“There is more puck possession when you can have it, but it’s all about winning races – not only to the net, but winning races from your goal and goal line up ice. And that’s where the [defensemen] have been really effective. The first guy that touches the puck on a breakout is usually the guy that’s down ice, if you execute. You see that around the league, and you saw it [Sunday] with [Blues defenseman Colton] Parayko doing that to us a couple of times, and we did it to them a couple of times, too.
“I think it’s another way that the game is evolving. There are more offensive players playing in the game, and they’re pushing the offense.”
Call Of The West –
For the Caps, Tuesday’s game against the Canucks ends a stretch in which Washington plays nine of 19 games against Western Conference opponents. Beginning with Thursday’s game against Carolina, the Caps will play nine straight and 12 of their next 13 games against Eastern Conference opposition, including eight games against Metro Division foes in those next 13.
The only game the Caps play against a Western opponent between now and mid-February will be the first ever visit of the Vegas Golden Knights to the District for a Sunday matinee match on Feb. 4.
Washington started the season with four wins in its first 10 games against Wastern foes (4-6-0), but the Caps are 6-1-1 in their last eight contests against the opposite conference, with the lone regulation loss during that stretch coming on Dec. 23 in Vegas against the Golden Knights.
In The Nets –
Philipp Grubauer gets the nod in net tonight for the Capitals, meaning that he will almost certainly start two of Washington’s three games between now and the beginning of the team’s bye week. After Tuesday’s game against the Canucks, the Caps have just a home-and-home set with Carolina before they shut down for their five-day bye week. Grubauer and Braden Holtby figure to split those two contests against Carolina.
Grubauer has been beyond excellent in his recent outings, posting a 1.05 GAA and a .962 save pct. to go along with a shutout and a 2-0-2 record in his last five starts. He will be making his first start since Dec. 27 at Madison Square Garden, and he will carry a shutout streak of 65 minutes into Tuesday’s tilt with the Canucks.
Lifetime against Vancouver, Grubauer is 1-0-0 with a 2.12 GAA and a .912 save pct. He appeared against the Canucks in relief of Holtby earlier this season, permitting one goal on eight shots in 25 minutes of work.
For the Canucks, Jacob Markstrom gets the start in net on Tuesday against the Caps. Markstrom has a 10-13-5 mark in 28 starts this season, along with a 2.76 GAA and a .907 save pct.
Anders Nilsson was in net for the Canucks when they defeated the Caps in Vancouver on Oct. 26, and Markstrom will be making his first start against the Capitals since Dec. 11, 2016. Lifetime against Washington, Markstrom is 0-5-0 in five appearances, with a 3.51 GAA and an .889 save pct.
All Lined Up –
Here’s how we expect the Caps to look when they take to the ice on Tuesday night against the Canucks at Capital One Arena:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 25-Smith-Pelly
13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 77-Oshie
18-Stephenson, 83-Beagle, 65-Burakovsky
22-D. Sedin, 33-H. Sedin, 47-Baertschi
26-Vanek, 89-Gagner, 6-Boeser
60-Granlund, 17-Dowd, 21-Eriksson
77-Goldobin, 45-Chaput, 18-Virtanen
4-Del Zotto, 44-Gudbranson
20-Sutter (upper body)
53-Horvat (fractured ankle)