Oct. 19 vs. Columbus Blue Jackets at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Columbus Blue Jackets (2-4)
Washington Capitals (2-5)
The Caps close out their season-long five-game homestand with a Saturday night visit from the Columbus Blue Jackets, their new neighbors in the Metropolitan Division. Saturday’s game is the first of four meetings between the two teams this season.
After winning just one of the first four games on their current homestand, the Capitals are hoping to salvage a couple of points before they head out on the road for their longest road trip of the season.
Washington scored eight goals in its first two games this season, but it has managed just eight goals in five games since. Half of those came in Monday’s 4-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers.
Most recently, the Caps came up blank in a 2-0 whitewashing at the hands of Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers.
One of many concerns for the Caps in the early going this season is the team’s struggle to score at even strength. Washington has managed just eight even-strength goals in its first seven games, and its .50 ratio of 5-on-5 goals for/against is second worst in the NHL. The Capitals finished last season a respectable 10th in the league in that department with a 1.07 5-on-5 ratio.
As a result of the team’s offensive struggles and in an effort to stimulate some even-strength scoring, Caps coach Adam Oates – who showed remarkable patience with his forward lines for the first seven games of the season – made changes to three of his four forward lines at Friday’s practice.
The top line of Marcus Johansson and Alex Ovechkin flanking Nicklas Backstrom remained intact. That line has accounted for three of Washington’s eight even-strength goals this season, and Johansson and Backstrom were the only forwards on the ice for a fourth even-strength goal, Connor Carrick’s first NHL goal on Oct. 3 vs. Calgary.
Brooks Laich was moved from the left side to the middle of a line with Troy Brouwer on the right and Martin Erat on the left. Mikhail Grabovski will center a unit with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward, and Aaron Volpatti appears likely to get into the lineup for the first time on the left side of a fourth line with Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson. That would likely leave Eric Fehr as a healthy scratch. A right wing by trade, Fehr had been skating the middle of a line with Chimera and Ward.
“We talk a lot about chemistry and that’s important,” says Oates. “I just felt that a couple of guys weren’t playing good enough for the minutes they were getting, and they need to know that. It could be a short-term change, but we had to make a couple of changes.”
Grabovski is the lone Washington forward who is playing the Oates system for the first time, and Oates believes that moving him down a line may help ease his adjustment. It took most of Grabovski’s teammates a dozen or so games to latch on last season.
“I moved Grabo back just because I think maybe it’s been a lot – the system – for him,” explains Oates, “where everybody [else] has had a year under it. I think a couple of mistakes were based on that.”
Oates believes that a better and tighter performance is a more pressing need and that the club will generate enough scoring chances to win on a nightly basis.
“Our tracking, we focused on our own end, we focused on a lot the last couple of meetings because we’re not doing a good enough job in our own end,” says the Caps’ bench boss. “I feel that we’re going to get plenty of chances every single night to score. I showed them that in the game [against the New York Rangers] the other night, where we had a 5-on-3 [power play] in the first period, [but] Wardo misses an empty net. Big picture, we all know if that goes in, it’s a different game. We had plenty of chances to score. We will every night. We have to take care of our own end.”
Erat moves up to a top-six role after playing the left side of the fourth line for the first seven games of the season.
“It’s been kind of a different year for me,” Erat admits. “But it doesn’t matter where I play. We need a win right now and against Columbus we have to be ready and 100 percent engaged. Everybody has to be on the same page and we have to get the two points.”
Laich is a natural center who has played mainly wing over the last several seasons. He has always had the mindset of a pivot, and doesn’t believe he’ll have difficulty adjusting to the change.
“My brain has never clicked off to just being a winger and always coming back and letting the centerman do it,” says Laich. “My brain is always, ‘If I am first one back [defensively], I am going low because I am a natural center and I know how to play that position. I am going low and I am going to try to win that battle.’ For me, it’s no adjustment really at all. It’s not a mindset shift at all for me; it’s just a position shift. That’s about it. It’s fairly easy, actually.
“One of my favorite parts about playing center is getting back and making contact and then skating that puck up. I really enjoy grabbing the puck right at our goal line and then skating, taking the first five or six bursts toward the top of the circle and then moving the puck; getting back and giving the guy a shove, getting the puck and then taking off right away. You’re 200 feet away from scoring a goal, but it’s a little thing that I really enjoy.
“My thought process is I want to get back as quick as I can, make contact as quick as I can, get the puck and transition it up ice – north – right away.”
Caps defenseman John Erskine practiced with his teammates on Friday, but no decision has been made on whether or not he’ll play on Saturday against the Jackets. Nate Schmidt was recalled when Erskine was injured, but Schmidt has played well for three games now. Schmidt skated just over 20 minutes in Wednesday’s loss to the Rangers and might have been the Caps’ best defenseman in that game. He will almost certainly suit up against Columbus.
Near the end of Wednesday’s game, the Caps shuffled the deck with their six defensemen. Karl Alzner and John Carlson were reunited as partners, and Schmidt was paired with Mike Green.
“At the end of the game we switched it up a little bit to try and get some more momentum,” says Oates. “It looked okay, so we’re going to start [Saturday’s game] that way.”
Washington goaltender Braden Holtby made 34 saves in the game against the Rangers. He has posted a 2.31 GAA and a .927 save pct. in his last four starts, but has just a 1-3 mark to show for his efforts in that span.
The Jackets are finishing up a three-game road tour in Washington. Columbus dropped a 2-1 decision to the Red Wings in Detroit on Tuesday and then fell 5-3 to the Habs in Montreal on Thursday.
Columbus has dropped three straight games, scoring a total of just five goals in the three losses. Like the Caps, the Jackets have two wins and one of them came via the shootout.
In Thursday’s loss to the Habs, Columbus rebounded from a 3-0 deficit to even the game at 3-3, getting the first two goals of Boone Jenner’s NHL career in the process. Jenner was the Jackets’ second-round (37th overall) pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Columbus was within two minutes of claiming at least a point, but Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec beat Jackets’ goalie Sergei Bobrovsky with just 1:07 left in regulation, and the Habs added an empty-netter to send Columbus away empty-handed.
Both of Jenner’s goals were scored on the power play: Columbus is 6-for-22 (27.3%) with the extra man on the young season.
Along with San Jose’s Antti Niemi and Boston’s Tuukka Rask, Bobrovsky is one of only three goaltenders who have played in every minute of their team’s games thus far this season.
After Saturday’s game against the Capitals, the Jackets head home for four straight and eight of their next nine.