Home Stop – Their three-game California trip now complete, the Caps make another in their continuing series of brief stops at home on Monday night. Washington hosts the Winnipeg Jets on Monday in the fourth of six straight one-game homestands.
Early in the season, the Caps had a string of six straight one-game homestands. When that 36-day period in which they played 16 games came to an end, the Caps owned an 8-7-1 record.
In their current nomadic stretch in which they’ll travel for each of 22 straight games before having consecutive contests at Capital One once again, the Caps are 6-6-1 through 13 games, with nine more to go.
Some quick math tells us the Caps went a respectable 24-10-5 during the portion of the schedule when they weren’t living out of suitcases and constantly shuttling themselves to and from Dulles.
Tighten Up – Last season, the Caps surrendered the fewest goals against (177) in the NHL. Offseason subtractions of Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and Kevin Shattenkirk altered the team’s blueline personnel for 2017-18, and there have been some defensive zone growing pains throughout this season.
Washington has spent more time in its own end, less time in the attack zone, and it has surrendered more high danger scoring chances per game this season than in either of the previous two campaigns. But recently, the Caps have taken some strides to address that situation.
The Caps scored a robust total of 36 goals over a 10-game stretch from Jan. 25-Feb. 17, but managed only a 5-3-2 record because they also surrendered 38 goals over the same span.
Over their next 10 games, the Caps have cut their goals against to 26, but they’ve managed only 24 goals of their own and are 5-5-0 to show for it. But that total of 26 goals against over their last 10 games is tied for the fewest among all Eastern Conference clubs over that span. If the Caps can sustain their recent improvement in the defensive zone over the final 14 games of the regular season, it would be a hopeful sign heading into the postseason.
“I think it’s a combination of both,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “If you take away that first period in Anaheim, I thought the rest of the trip we played fairly well. We played some good teams that were in desperate situations – Anaheim on the brink [of making the playoffs], L.A. on the brink; they had a five-day rest and they obviously worked on their game. And then San Jose is in that mix, and we were the desperate team on that end.
“We couldn’t keep the puck out of our end for a couple of weeks here. We got a couple of practices in where we got some of the stink out of the air with our own play in our own end. We got that corrected – hopefully more permanent than temporary.
“I think we were able to correct that area of our game, but we’ve got to be able to score at the other end; that went dry a little bit. A lot of it was the guys that we depend on got a little dry. But you have a chance to win games when you tighten up defensively.
“If you’re expected to score five or six goals to beat the other team, it’s going to be pretty hard. But we’re capable of getting three or four a night when we’re feeling it, so if we can get three and win hockey games I think that increases or chances. Getting five and six to beat a team is not going to be a good formula for us.”
Not only have the Caps shaved their goals against total significantly over their last 10 games, they’ve gone five straight games allowing 30 or fewer shots on goal for the first time this season.
“The biggest thing is just guys’ commitment to it,” says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. “Coming back up ice, the forwards have to back-pressure hard and the defense has to have good gaps. And then I think we’ve been a little more committed in our own zone and we’ve sorted out a few details as far as where guys need to be. A lot of it comes back to just stopping in position.
“Defensively, we’re trending in the right direction. I think our offensive output at times has taken a tool because of that, so we’re trying to find a little bit of balance here.”
Do Over – Last month in Winnipeg, the Caps put together 55 minutes or so of excellent road hockey against the Jets, nursing a 3-1 lead to the latter stages of the game. The Caps mismanaged the end of that contest and were forced to settle for a single point in a 4-3 overtime loss, but there are some elements of their game that night that might be worth repeating if they’re able to do so on home ice against the Jets tonight.
“There is a lot,” says Trotz. “We have to play the Jets and there are a lot of things we identified in Winnipeg that we’re going to try to use in our [pre-scout], identify some areas where they’re really strong, and some areas that we were really good at, and try to clean up a couple of areas where we can do a little bit better.
“They’re a deep team. They’ve got a lot of offense. The first two lines combined I think have 160 and 153 points combined between the two lines. They’re missing some people, but they’ve got some offense going through their lineup. They’re a good, deep hockey team. I think they’re 4-1 in their last five, and [Patrik] Laine has got nine of their last 14 goals, so we’ve got to stop Laine tonight.”
Winnipeg is fourth in the league in goals for and fifth in goals against. The Jets come to town on the heels of a 2-1 loss to the Flyers in Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon, and they’ve not lost consecutive games in regulation in more than a month, since Feb. 9-11. The Capitals’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Jets in Winnipeg on Feb. 13 came in the immediate aftermath of those consecutive losses.
“Tactically, we did a lot of good things with the puck and without it; just being responsible with it in the right areas,” says Niskanen of the Caps’ game against the Jets in Winnipeg last month. “I thought we advanced it when we had to and were able to create some speed when we had some room. Without it, we were really good defending most of that game, but we kind of let a point slip away there. But it was overall a good effort if I remember right, and we will try to keep the momentum from last game, too.”
In The Nets – Coming off a 24-save shutout of the Sharks in San Jose on Saturday afternoon, Philipp Grubauer gets the net for Washington on Monday against the Jets. Grubauer will be making his third straight start, his longest run of consecutive starts since he started five straight games for the Caps from Dec. 23, 2014 through Jan. 2, 2014.
Grubauer started each of the last two games of the California trip, yielding two goals in a 3-1 loss to the Kings in Los Angeles before shutting out the Sharks.
Tonight, Grubauer will make his first career start against the Jets, seeking his 10
th victory of the season. Over his last 19 games (14 starts), Grubauer is 9-3-2 with a pair of shutouts, a 2.08 GAA, and a .945 save pct. He has permitted two or fewer goals in 11 of his last 14 starts.
For the Jets, Connor Hellebuyck gets the nod in net on Monday against Washington. He went 26-6-7 with four shutouts, a 2.35 GAA and a .924 save pct. in 41 appearances (39 starts) before the All-Star break. Since then, Hellebuyck is 9-5-1 with two shutouts, a 2.47 GAA and a .920 save pct.
Lifetime against the Caps, Hellebuyck is 2-1-0 in three starts with a 2.26 GAA and a .924 save pct.
All Lined Up – Here’s how we expect the Capitals and the Jets to look when they take the ice on Monday night at Capital One Arena:
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
10-Connolly, 19-Backstrom, 65-Burakovsky
13-Vrana, 20-Eller, 77-Oshie
18-Stephenson, 83-Beagle, 25-Smith-Pelly
27-Ehlers, 25-Stastny, 29-Laine
81-Connor, 18-Little, 26-Wheeler
85-Perreault, 9-Copp, 52-Roslovic
13-Tanev, 15-Hendricks, 40-Armia
5-Kulikov (upper body)
16-Matthias (upper body)
35-Mason (lower body)
55-Scheifele (upper body)