The Caps returned from Dallas last weekend with a 1-2 record on the young season and a five-game homestand looming ahead. Four full practices and two games into that homestand, the Caps are now 1-4, but they remain unfazed and they believe good things – in the form of wins and points – are on the horizon.
Washington hosts Edmonton tonight in the middle match of that five-game homestand, and the New York Rangers are on deck. Both the Oilers and the Rangers have also been struggling, and their presence on this week’s schedule could serve as a tonic to the Caps.
The Oilers and the Rangers are both in the midst of lengthy road trips, and both have been hemorrhaging goals against early in the season. Each has allowed an average of five goals per game, the worst figure in the NHL.
After scoring four goals in each of their first two games of the season, the Caps have tallied just five times in three games since. Caps coach Adam Oates believes in his lines and his lineup; we’ll see the same forward lines on the ice tonight that we saw in Saturday’s 5-1 loss to the Avalanche.
Oates has kept his top three lines intact throughout the team’s 1-4 start this season.
“Some decisions are tough, obviously,” admits Oates before the Edmonton game, “But I didn’t feel that we played that badly [against Colorado] . The score obviously wasn’t great, but there were a lot of things we did well. I don’t want them to feel like we’re pushing the panic button as well.”
One of the few new faces in the Washington lineup is that of second-line center Mikhail Grabovski. He and his linemates (left wing Brooks Laich and right wing Troy Brouwer) are still adjusting to one another, and they seemed to take a significant step forward in that regard in the loss to the Avalanche. That trio accounted for 10 of Washington’s 40 shots on goal in the game, and it managed to get all 10 of its shot attempts on net.
“We can all get used to playing with each other a little more,” says Laich, of his line’s ongoing chemistry development. “I think in the last game especially we finally had some shifts where we made three, four, five passes in a row in the offensive zone.
“The first couple of games, it was a pass and a shot and a battle in the corner and try to retrieve the puck. But last game we really found our positions and found each other. We used the high slot guy, moved it to the low guy, got our cycle going, got into positions and started to get some of the looks we wanted.
“Grabo’s got great speed and handles the puck very well. Brouws is a shooter if we can get him in spots to shoot the puck. Myself, I like to go in corners and go around the net and shoot the puck as well. I think our line combined for maybe nine, 10 or 11 shots. If we can keep doing that, we’ll get goals.”
In its five games to date, Washington has played 305 minutes of hockey. The Capitals have owned a lead for just over 37 minutes of that stretch, and more than 30 of those minutes came in a single game, Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.
Washington has been outscored 8-3 in the first period of its five games this season; only Edmonton (nine) has allowed more first-period goals.
Grabbing an early lead and playing with it for a while would do the Caps a world of good.
“We don’t want to get behind the eight-ball if we can help it,” says Oates. “We’ll address it tonight and we talked about it a little bit this morning. We want to try to find our energy right away. It’s execution and unfortunately so far, it’s like the first shot has been going in, too. It’s a little bit of everything Hopefully, we can conquer that.”
The Capitals finished last season on a 7-0-1 run in their last eight home games, outscoring foes by a combined 7-3 in the first 20 minutes of those games. When Washington laid waste to the NHL with its’ 121-point, Presidents’ Trophy winning season in 2009-10, one of its hallmarks was its first-period domination. The Caps led the league with 92 first-period goals that season, and they had a plus-35 goal differential in the first frame.
“A couple of years ago,” remembers Laich, “we’d get 2-0 or 3-0 leads and almost get a field goal in the first period there. It was kind of like, ‘The Big Red Dog is coming.’ It sets the other team back, it kind of intimidates them, it feels like we’re tilting the ice and that we’re bigger, stronger, faster and smarter. And this year we haven’t been able to establish that yet. But you work for that.
“The starts are important. Preparation is important. Focus, being sharp and crisp; putting the puck on the tape instead of six inches in front or behind. All these little things add up to making our team fast and making our team good and sharp. Ultimately those inches, they end up in goals. Eventually, throughout 60 minutes, they’ll end up in goals. And if we can get some of those early on tonight, that’ll be great.”