Home, Home Again – The Caps like to be here when they can, but the concept of a “homestand” is largely in the rear view mirror for Washington the rest of the way. Although the Caps have 10 home games remaining, including Saturday night’s date with the Sabres, one of those – the March 3 Stadium Series game against Toronto in Annapolis – is essentially a road game, and the rest are scattered singles for the next month.
The next time the Caps play consecutive contests at Capital One Arena will be a two-game homestand with the New York Rangers and Carolina, respectively, more than a month from now (March 28-30). That two-game homestand against the Rangers and the Canes will be Washington’s first set of consecutive home games at Cap One in a span of 44 days. The Caps will conclude the 2017-18 regular season with another two-game homestand against Nashville and New Jersey on April 5-7.
With just two wins in their last eight home games (2-4-2), the Caps haven’t wowed the home crowds of late. Although Buffalo’s record is currently the worst among the Eastern Conference’s 16 member teams, the Sabres are also in the midst of their best run of road hockey since 2011. Buffalo has earned points in each of six straight road games (5-0-1) while outscoring the opposition by a combined total of 20-8 in those half dozen contests.
Coming Around – Washington enters Saturday’s game with the Sabres with just one win in its last four games (1-3-0), but since getting schooled by Chicago to the tune of 7-1 a week ago tonight in the Windy City, the Caps have played three mostly strong hockey games. They’ve had the puck more, they’ve created more offense, they’ve spent less time in their own end and they’ve not been hemmed into their own zone for long periods.
That’s all good, especially in comparison to the team’s norm in recent weeks, but results are important in this business, too. The Caps have come back to the pack in the Metro, and with a quarter of the campaign remaining, they need to get back to generating a steady stream of standings points, too.
“We had a meeting after the Chicago game, in Buffalo,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “I just felt that there were certain things that we needed to address. I wanted to take a few things that we saw in Winnipeg and that we saw in Minnesota, because we talk about building our game. And then we had a clunker in Chicago, obviously. We wanted to get back to some of those things that we were trying to build in the Winnipeg and Minnesota games, we tried to get back to it in the Buffalo game and then the last couple of games.”
The Buffalo game on Monday was a 3-2 win. A night later, the Caps dug an early 3-0 hole with a trio of mistakes in the first frame but rallied and played extremely well over the final 40 minutes in a 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning at Cap One Arena.
On Thursday in Florida, a 2-1 Washington lead evaporated in the game’s final four minutes as the Caps lost on a Panthers power-play goal in the final half minute of regulation. But again, they drove the play, had the puck more and generated some strong offensive-zone shifts.
“The last game we know how it ended,” says Trotz, “and I felt we deserved at least a point out of that. But I think in zone, we were almost five minutes more in possession time than them. In this game, that’s huge. That was one of the higher totals of the year, really. So we did a lot of good things. We’ve got to find a result.”
Over their last 16 games, the Caps are a very ordinary 6-6-4, scoring more than three goals a game over that stretch. But the Caps have netted just eight goals in their last four games despite showing offensive improvement in their last three.
“I think we’ve got a few areas to clean up,” says Washington winger Brett Connolly. “Last game was a tough one – a couple of goals later there – we’ve just got to find ways to close out games. But I thought for the most part we played pretty well against Florida and it was a matter of managing our mistakes and capitalizing on theirs.”
Jerabek Reports – Defenseman Jakub Jerabek, obtained from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for a fifth-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, participated in Saturday’s morning skate with his new teammates, but his debut in a Washington sweater will not occur in Saturday’s game against the Sabres.
“It was crazy days the last three days,” says Jerabek, “because I had my parents on their way to Montreal and they didn’t know [about the trade], and it was a big surprise for them. So I tried to figure out the situation with them to get them here, and they will come today, so I’m really happy.”
Jerabek sat out most of this month with the Canadiens; he has not played since Feb. 1. The Habs signed him as a free agent last summer, but he skated in only 25 games for an also-ran Montreal team in 2017-18.
“I had no expectations before the season,” says Jerabek. “Last year, I had a good year in the [KHL], and every player my age wants the chance to go play here, so you have to try it. Itw as the same with me. I was really happy that I got the opportunity in Montreal and to get to know this big show.”
This week’s additions of Jerabek from Montreal and Michal Kempny from Chicago coupled with the loss of Taylor Chorney on waivers to Columbus leaves the Caps with eight defensemen. At the time of Chorney’s departure, he had played in just four of the Capitals’ previous 34 games while serving as the team’s seventh defenseman. It will be interesting to see how the Caps deploy these eight blueliners over the final quarter of the campaign.
In The Nets – Earlier this week, Caps goaltender Philipp Grubauer made 32 saves to help his team earn a 3-2 victory over the Sabres in Buffalo. The Caps are going back to Grubauer for Saturday’s home game against Buffalo, a start Trotz says was already in the team’s plans.
Grubauer has been extremely sharp for the last several weeks. In his last 13 outings (10 starts), Grubauer is 6-2-2 with a shutout, a 1.87 GAA and a .940 save pct. During his career against the Sabres, Grubauer is 3-1-2 with a 1.34 GAA and a .952 save pct.
Buffalo is starting a set of back-to-back games with Saturday’s visit to the District; the Sabres head right back home to host the Boston Bruins on Sunday. So the Sabres are virtually certain to split the goaltending chores this weekend, but because the Sabres did not conduct a morning skate because of a Georgetown basketball game today, we’re not sure which netminder goes for them tonight.
The best bet is Robin Lehner, who was placed on injured reserve just ahead of the Caps’ visit to Buffalo earlier this week. Lehner is back on the active list, and he has helped fuel the Sabres’ strong recent run of road hockey, going 3-0-1 with a 1.22 GAA and a .963 save pct. in his last four road starts.
Lifetime against the Capitals, Lehner is 1-2-1 with a 2.21 GAA and a .925 save pct. in four appearances.
All Lined Up – Here’s how we expect the Capitals and the Sabres to look when they take the ice on Saturday night at Capital One Arena:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 43-Wilson
10-Connolly, 92-Kuznetsov, 77-Oshie
18-Stephenson, 20-Eller, 65-Burakovsky
25-Smith-Pelly, 83-Beagle, 39-Chiasson
9-Kane, 90-O’Reilly, 23-Reinhart
28-Girgensons, 71-Rodrigues, 21-Okposo
20-Wilson, 22-Larsson, 29-Pominville
67-Pouliot, 10-Josefson, 17-Nolan
15-Eichel (high ankle sprain)
47-Bogisian (lower body)