As they vie for their first perfect road trip of three or more games in almost 13 years, the Caps will do so without the services of defenseman Mike Green tonight in New York against the Rangers. The defenseman departed Thursday’s game with the Lightning in the waning minutes; that contest marked the first time in 14 games this season that Green was not Washington’s ice time leader at game’s end.
Green is seventh in the NHL in average ice time per game at 26:33 per night, so the six Washington defensemen will all need to assume a bit more of a workload this evening. Green ranks eighth in the league among defensemen in power-play ice time per game at 4:43 per tilt, but the Caps have two capable and ready right-handed shooters who can easily assume Green’s extra-man minutes in John Carlson and Tomas Kundratek.
Where Green will be missed most is at even-strength, where his average of 19:54 ranks eighth among all NHL defensemen and is almost two minutes more than any other Washington rearguard.
Veteran and former Ranger Tom Poti will draw into the lineup for tonight’s game. Poti has averaged 18:02 in ice time – 15:36 of it at even-strength – in the five games in which he has played this season.
In their recent games and especially during the life of their current three-game winning streak, the Capitals have shored up some areas of their game that were plaguing them early in the season.
Washington scored three or fewer goals in each of its first 11 games of 2012-13, but after scoring 15 goals during its modest three-game winning streak, it now stands 10th in the NHL with an average of 2.86 goals per game.
The Caps went 2-for-17 (11.8%) on the power play at season’s outset, but they’ve clicked at a torrid 11-for-31 (35.5%) pace since. Washington’s power play has a 27.1% success rate on the season, good for fifth in the league.
After killing themselves with penalty-killing and poor discipline early in the season, the Caps have also made strides in those areas. The Capitals are 9-for-9 on the penalty-kill in their last three games, and they’ve gone shorthanded just 22 times in their last seven games after putting themselves a man down a whopping 38 times in their first seven games.
A string of good games in the face-off circle has the Caps in the middle of the NHL’s pack in that department, and they’re creeping up toward 50 percent on the season, currently sitting at 49.5%.
What does that leave? Defensive zone play. Washington has allowed 3.5 goals per game, 29th in the NHL. The Caps are 3-0 when they limit the opposition to two or fewer goals in game, but they've only managed to do so three times in 14 games.
“That’s the hardest part of the game,” says Caps center Mike Ribeiro. “Once you come into your own zone and stop and get into position, a lot of times we over-backheck or we swing away or stuff like that. It’s still a detail of the game that we need to do, especially in our zone, come back and stop in position and go from there.”
One of the focal points of Saturday’s Caps practice was the team’s play in its own end.
“Obviously, a lot of our game has come a long way from the first couple of games,” notes Caps center Jay Beagle. “But the d-zone is something we continue to work on. We worked on it again yesterday in practice for a good 15-20 minutes. It’s been a main focus point of ours, just working on tightening up and still kind of learning in certain situations where to go to and how to play in the d-zone and making sure that pucks don’t get through to our goaltenders.”
In addition to performing better and more consistently in their own end, the Caps know they’ve got to display more of a killer instinct late in games, especially on the road. Earlier this season, the Caps came away pointless in a pair of road games in which they went into the third period with a lead. On Thursday in Tampa, they watched a 4-1 third-period lead morph into a 4-3 white-knuckle affair.
“We did that a little bit yesterday in practice, practiced with that,” says Ribeiro. “Closing out the opposite teams, too. Maybe the last two games we let teams come back. [We need to] be able to close them out, 3-1 or 4-1. Make sure we’re smart with the puck and we kill time with it.”
For their next test, the Caps take on the Rangers, the team that ousted them from the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs last May.
“It’s going to be an exciting night for us,” says Caps forward Matt Hendricks. “The last time we were in this building, it was a tough shake. We look forward to it. They’ve got a little bit of a different roster, we’ve got a little bit of a different roster, but still there are a lot of the same key players there. It should be an exciting game.”
When the Caps fell to New York last spring, they were playing a style and system that is very similar to that of the Rangers. Now they’re playing a system that is very similar to that of the team that eliminated the Rangers from the playoffs in the Eastern Conference final, the New Jersey Devils.
“We’re going to try and make them turn pucks over,” says Hendricks of the Rangers. “They like to be a transition team. They’ve got some great forwards that like to get up and down the ice and some great defensemen that like to join the rush. So we’re going to try to catch them in transition and try to eliminated their chances going through the neutral zone.”