Oct. 14 vs. Edmonton Oilers at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Edmonton Oilers (1-3-1)
Washington Capitals (1-4)
Two scuffling teams try to right their respective ships on Monday night when the Edmonton Oilers visit Verizon Center for the middle match of the Capitals’ season-long five-game homestand.
The Capitals are coming off a 5-1 loss at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night. Ex-Caps goalie Semyon Varlamov was stellar in his first appearance against his former team, stopping 40 of the 41 shots the Caps sent in his direction.
In the wake of that loss, the Caps scrapped a scheduled Sunday practice, opting to have a day away from the game both physically and mentally. They held a team meeting and a brief video session on Sunday, and they’ll reconvene for Monday’s morning skate in preparation for the game against the Oilers.
“We talked about a lot of things,” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom of the meeting. “I think we actually played a little better than the results, I would say. But at the end of the day it’s some mistakes that allow them to score those goals and that’s the area we’ve got to clean up. I think we had more zone time than the previous games, but they won 5-1, so we’ve still got to get better.”
Washington has dropped three in a row, including two on home ice. The last time the Capitals lost three straight at home was March 2-6, 2012 when they went 0-2-1 in the middle of a five-game homestand, the last five-game homestand they had prior to the current one.
After scoring eight goals in their first two games of the season, the Caps have tallied just five times in their last three contests. On the plus side, they created stellar chances throughout Saturday’s loss to the Avalanche, and Caps coach Adam Oates believes if his team keeps playing the game the right way, the points and the wins will follow.
“We’re not big statistical people because sometimes the numbers are skewed,” says Oates. “But some of our play [Saturday] night was excellent. The score is not indicative of that.
“[Colorado] got basically two power play goals and a shorthanded goal and two goals off the rush. We were in their end 28 minutes and they were in our end eight minutes, which is a huge, huge difference from our normal numbers.
“I told the boys, ‘We were in their end 110 times,’ The previous high of the year was 70. So we’re obviously doing a lot of good things. Our [defense] is doing a lot of good things. As I said to them, ‘Everything is going Colorado’s way.’ Varlamov played a fantastic hockey game. None of our Grade A chances even looked like they were going to get close to going in. And every single little mistake we make is in our net. We’ve got to fight through that, keep playing the right way and it will turn.”
Slow starts have also dogged the Capitals in the early going this season. Washington has been outscored by a combined total of 8-3 in the first period of its five games this season. Edmonton (nine) is the only team that has allowed more first-period goals than the Capitals have this season.
“That’s something we’ve got to make sure we do better, too,” says Backstrom of his team’s sluggish starts. “We’re having slow starts and a little passive I think we are. We’ve just got to come out hungrier and work harder overall.
“When we were down 2-0 [against Colorado], that’s when we started to get better and we looked a little hungrier out there. We’ve just got to do that from the start.”
The Capitals have played a total of 305 minutes of hockey thus far on the young season, and they’ve owned a lead for just over 37 minutes of that time. More than 30 minutes of that lead-time came in Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.
Washington has owned a lead at the end of a period just once this season. That occurred after the first frame in the game against the Hurricanes.
“We’ve had some good final 10 minutes of games, final 15 minutes of games and bad first 15 minutes,” notes Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “We always wait until the last couple of minutes to have that urgency.
“I think the best teams in the league are the teams that have that urgency for the entire 60. It’s frustrating. It’s really frustrating to be down every single game and to have to battle like that. It’s nice to get a lead and try to hold onto it and make sure you’re a little more responsible. It’s tough to play hockey like that.”
The Caps started 2-8-1 last season in a truncated 48-game campaign and still made the playoffs, so a 1-4 start over an 82-game slate doesn’t have them reaching for the panic button just yet.
“The coaching staff is always positive,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. “I don’t think we have a panic mode right now. Of course we’re not happy. But we’re going to win [Monday] and everything is going to be on our side.”
“The bounces aren’t going our way, obviously,” says defenseman Mike Green. “We know that. But it’s not for a lack of effort or caring. There has definitely been that. We feel like we’ve let a few games slip and here we are. I don’t think it’s anything to worry about. We’re still positive here in the dressing room. But it’s stuff that we need to push that much harder to get through, just to get our points and our games that we need to win to get where we want to be at the end of the year.
“We’ll get there. Last year we started slow and we made our push and made it to where we want to be. So there’s no need to panic. It’s positive in here. The older guys will make sure the job gets done.”
The Caps definitely seem to be taking their cues from Oates, who showed a steady hand throughout the trials and travails of last season when the team’s woes were bigger and seemingly more insurmountable.
Washington’s 5-1 loss on Saturday might have caused other coaches to yell and curse at and bag skate their charges, but Oates is not that guy. He doesn’t see a lack of effort in his team and believes the results will come.
“I’m no expert,” he admits. “You’re always going back to what you think, and we talk about it. When I played, if I had that game [Saturday] night, I showed up for work. And I feel the guys showed up for work. So if I showed up for work and we lose, I don’t want to be yelled at. I want to be coached. Tell me the truth. If you think I played a bad game, that’s fine. But tell me the truth. Don’t make something up, because then I lose faith in you.
“And I don’t want to be that guy. I do not want to tell them a lie. I’ll tell them when I think they make mistakes, for sure. We show guys individually all the time. And collectively, if we think we had a stinker, we’ll tell them. Calgary was their worst game, probably. But I’m not going to lie to them, no way. Because I think guys see through that, too.
“Maybe they come in expecting to be yelled at because we lost. It’s just not my style. I think I can look a guy in the eye and he knows that I’m not happy with him. Last night, we did a lot of good things. The score is not going our way and things aren’t going our way. We’ve got to be better.”
Whether or not Oates and his staff opt to tinker with the team’s lines and lineup remains to be seen. But on Sunday, the Caps’ bench boss sounded like a guy who was happy with at least three of his four lines, the top trio of Marcus Johansson, Backstrom and Ovechkin being the lone possible exception.
The Capitals’ bottom six forwards were their best players in Saturday’s setback.
The Oilers are making their first visit to the District since March 9, 2011 when the Caps blanked them 5-0. That win was Washington’s sixth straight in what would become a nine-game winning streak. Caps goalie Braden Holtby made 22 saves that night to record his first NHL shutout.
Edmonton is currently on a six-game road trip, the second game of which is Monday’s contest at Verizon Center. The Oilers opened the season with three of their first four games on home ice, going 1-3 in those contests and needing a furious third-period comeback to earn their lone victory against New Jersey.
The Oilers opened their six-game journey on Saturday night in Toronto, dropping a 6-5 firewagon tilt to the Maple Leafs on hockey night in Canada. Along with the New York Rangers, the Oilers have allowed a league-worst average of five goals per game in their first five games of the season.
Edmonton’s trip also takes them to Pittsburgh, Long Island, Ottawa and Montreal. The Oilers will return home on Oct. 24 for a quick one-game stop to face the Capitals.